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U.S. path in Women’s World Cup is easy, but harder than top rivals.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Monday, February 15, 1999) -- The FIFA Women's World Cup draw was a mixed bag for the favored United States. The Americans avoided top non-seed Brazil in the first round and have a relatively easy path to the quarterfinals, though more difficult than chief contenders Norway and China, who start off with four relatively easy matches.

The U.S. quarterfinal foe could be the best game of the tournament to date -- against either Brazil, Germany or Italy. Norway and China, meanwhile, likely will face lackluster Sweden and possibly undermanned Canada, respectively, after the first round.

Probable semifinal foe for the Americans should they advance -- is Brazil, Germany or Italy.

The good news for the United States? It couldn't meet '95 world champion Norway or '96 Olympics runner-up China until the final day.

The tournament will set a record for travel. The United States, for example, if it makes the semifinals, will go from East Rutherford, N.J., to Chicago to Foxboro, Mass., to Landover, Md., to Stanford, Calif., to Pasadena, Calif.

Russia is not shedding tears. Its first round itinerary: Foxboro, Mass., to Portland, Ore., to East Rutherford, N.J. -- and then most likely back to Moscow.

This a radical departure from the men's World Cup, where first-round games are conducted in the same general area. U.S. Soccer decided to make this tournament nationwide, with big stadiums, etc., and preliminary indications from ticket sales are that it is succeeding.

More than 215,000 tickets had been sold before the team pairings were even announced, and the unofficial goal for the June 19-July 10 event is 500,000, which would mean an average of nearly 30,000 per date.

Single ticket sales begin in April, but there may not be many prime seats left in some locations by that time.

The U.S. opener against Denmark -- along with Brazil vs. Mexico in the nightcap -- could approach the 70,000 capacity of Giants Stadium.

The 2-1 televised Americans' exhibition loss Sunday to the World All-Stars didn't hurt. It showed there is talent outside the United States, which makes the non-U.S. teams more attractive. Americans mainly will support this tournament because (1) the United States is favored, (2) every game will be on television, (3) this is a Big Event, and (4) this is a showcase for women's athletics in general.

The U.S. national team not only is the team to beat, its players are popular with fans for their off-field accessibility and pleasantness as well as on-field skills and attacking mentality. This is important because, unlike with the men, ethnic support is not a big factor for the women. Thousands of Italians, for example, are not expected to journey here to follow Italy.

Furthermore, at least a third of the 16-team field is not competitive with the elite, which is a major reason why doubleheaders are planned through the quarterfinals.

The pressure for the United States to make the final is immense. The success of the World Cup is contingent on the Americans getting to the Rose Bowl. Coach Tony DiCicco has the most talent ever assembled for the Americans, but he must get the right combinations -- both on the field and on the bench.

The amount of depth is evident. Veteran midfielder Michelle Akers will be out four-six weeks with a broken cheekbone, but the accomplished Tisha Venturini, among others, is ready to step in. Venturini was a fixture in the starting line-up in the middle until DiCicco moved Kristine Lilly up to the front line and dropped Akers back into the central midfield.

The biggest news to come from the World Cup draw was FIFA president Sepp Blatter saying an under-18 women's championship may be implemented. This would be huge for the development of the sport. It would provide impetus and justification for development of girls programs not only for the United States but across the world.

FIFA already has under-17 and under-20 boys championships. If the "future of football will be feminine," as Blatter has proclaimed in recent years, it's time for the world soccer governing body to back up its words.

The United States has lagged in national team development with its teen-aged players -- as well as with post-college players by failing to produce a professional league.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at jlangdon@gns.gannett.com.

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