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With championship match mission accomplished, pressure should be off the American women.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Wednesday, July 7, 1999) -- The pressure should be off the U.S. women's soccer team. Attendance at the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup has been overwhelming. Popularity of the American women and their sport is at its zenith.

It was absolutely necessary for the United States to reach the finals for this tournament, accompanied by a firestorm of publicity, to be a success. Think President Clinton would be attending if it was playing for third place Saturday in the Rose Bowl?

Remember the words a couple weeks ago from China coach Ma Yuanan: the pressure is on the Americans. Mission accomplished. Pressure is over.

The United States has persevered against a rugged array of opponents, guaranteeing a near-90,000 sellout against China and, hopefully, bonzo numbers on ABC-TV.

China may be a slight favorite, based on winning two of three 2-1 matches earlier this year - and the near-perfection, mind-boggling 5-0 rout of defending champion Norway in the semifinals. Reduced expectations. Less pressure. Maybe fans will finally get to see the United States in peak form.

The key element for the home side in an otherwise inconsistent showing has been pluck in a five-game sweep of Denmark, Nigeria, Denmark, Germany and Brazil.

Much has been made of the defensive lapses, but overall central defenders Carla Overbeck and Kate Sobrero and defensive midfielder Michelle Akers have done well, and goalkeeper Briana Scurry likewise has risen to the challenge. It's the offense that has sputtered, with little of the creativity, ball possession and aggressiveness in the box that have been trademarks of U.S. teams in the past.

Particularly alarming was the failure to generate a sustained attack and, more importantly, get good shots against a modest Brazil defense. China is much stronger defensively - and offensively as well - and the Americans don't figure to get too many chances. When they do, they must capitalize.

Mia Hamm needs to shoot more. She is the team's best passer, as well as scorer, but she shouldn't be looking for the open teammate so much when in the box. Get greedy, Mia, go 1-on-1 or 1-on-2 more even if the results aren't satisfactory all the time.

The same must be said for the rest of the offense, which hasn't been pulling the trigger very many times in the run of play. We sound like a broken record here, but Shannon MacMillan's presence in the lineup is needed - from the start. Bringing her off the bench gives the offense a jumpstart, granted, but it's better to have 90 minutes of opportunity for the strongest shot on the team.

China appears the stronger team now, but let's not go overboard. It beat the Americans two out of three times this year, but the United States had the advantage in shots each game, with a cumulative 40-20 edge.

The tournament already is a success, the U.S. team has confirmed it's a success, and the pressure should be off. Relax, ladies, and just shoot the ball and play soccer the way you're capable of.

Fans will love you, win or lose Saturday.

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

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