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Jerry's World

Offense looking up, U.S. women are suddenly suspect on defense.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Tuesday, June 8, 1999) -- Earlier this year, the problem for the United States women's national soccer team was on attack. It wasn't creating much offense, and it wasn't finishing the few chances it got.

Now, less than two weeks before the start of the third FIFA Women's World Cup, the Americans are having problems on defense.

Canada exploited the U.S. central defense in Sunday's match, scoring twice in the first half and having the opportunities for two more goals before wilting in the second half.

Sloppy passes were one problem. Inadequate marking was another.

Granted, midfielder/forward Charmaine Hooper is world-class with brilliant speed and strength, but she was rarely challenged the first 45 minutes, in which she scored two goals. Same with rugged forward Silvana Burtini, who ran free for disconcerting amounts of time.

Veteran central defender Carla Overbeck had a tough time. Kate Sobrero, the speedy newcomer, helped out considerably. Canada didn't do much the second half, with Hooper moving further back into a defensive posture and the United States taking control of the midfield.

U.S. coach Tony DiCicco professes confidence in his personnel, pointing out the pedigrees of Hooper and Burtini. Furthermore, there are few better organizers of the defense than Overbeck, 31, the team captain and a starter in the 1991 and 1995 World Cups.

She has paired well with the quicker and more physical Sobrero in the back. How the two support each other is key to how the Americans will defend the many counterattacks likely in the World Cup against a team that likes to attack with its outside backs.

And Michelle Akers' presence is positively, absolutely essential -- perhaps more so than ever before. Her absence at defensive midfield, while recovering from an injury, could have been a factor in Canada's early offensive thrusts. Once the dominant striker in the world, she has aged gracefully. While fighting Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and overcoming numerous knee injuries, at age 33 she is one of the toughest one-on-one defenders in the world as well as a consummate ball winner and distributor in her new role as defensive midfielder.

She lacks the speed and range she had earlier in her career, but makes up for it with crunching tackles and superb passes, the male Chris Armas in this critical position. She is every bit as important to the success of the national team the next few weeks as superstar midfielder Kristine Lilly and superstar forward Mia Hamm.

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

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