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Women's World Cup

Starter Kate Sobrero injured in practice.

By Gary Davidson

CHICAGO (Wednesday, June 23, 1999) -- The U.S. women's national received a blow Wednesday when starting central defender Kate Sobrero went down in practice with a sprained right ankle.

It is extremely unlikely the 24-year-old former Notre Dame star, who was taken to the hospital where X-rays were negative, will be able to play in the Group A match here Thursday night against offensive-minded Nigeria.

Coach Tony DiCicco expressed hope she will be fit for the final opening round game Sunday against North Korea in Foxboro, Mass.

"There was no contact," he said. "She just went up to head the ball and came down on her ankle wrong in today's scrimmage."

DiCicco said he would decide 30 minutes before the 8:30 p.m. (ET) opening whistle on how to adjust the lineup if Sobrero as expected is not ready.

One option is to change from a 4-4-2 to a 3-4-3 formation with Carla Overbeck between Brandi Chastain and Joy Fawcett on the back line.

Sara Whalen, Christie Pearce and Lorrie Fair are the reserve defenders. If one of them is brought in, either Chastain or Fawcett would probably be moved into the center, though DiCicco said he had confidence in Pearce, if needed, to play inside.

"Christie has been playing solid for us," he said. "She has learned the outside and inside defensive positions well and is one of our best athletes on the team and definitely one of the fastest. She has a great long service out of the back, and she can be a good option for us in this situation."

"Sara (Whalen) is one of our fastest players and is one of the fastest players I have ever seen coming forward with the ball. We would be able to use her speed against a team like Nigeria."

"We have good depth at that position. Kate has been playing great, and we hope that it is not a serious injury, but it would have been a miracle to go out the entire tournament with the same lineup -- so we have been mentally prepared for an event like this."

Nigeria will try to isolate its explosive striker Mercy Akide on Overbeck. "Mercy had great skills and is very good on the ball," Overbeck said. "And she is helped greatly by her teammates making great runs off the ball as well. She is very strong in the air and scrappy."

"I don't know what Tony is planning (to replace Sobrero). We have lots of options and a number of systems that we can play. I do know whoever is called upon will come in and do a fantastic job."

DiCicco said the United States will be prepared to deal with Nigeria's quickness. "They have speed all over the field," he said. "We need to be very organized on defense to help contain them, but it is a two-way street because they have to deal with containing us as well." Added forward Mia Hamm: "We need to possess the ball well ... We need to pick our times and not rush anything."

Akide notched a goal and an assist in the 2-1 victory over North Korea.

"Nigeria was very impressive in their win," DiCicco said. "They looked very fit and had great team speed. They are bringing some wonderful personalities to this tournament and are going to be a difficult team for us to play."

Akide, nicknamed "Marvelous Mercy," scored 10 goals as the Super Falcons stormed to the African qualifying title, scoring 28 times without permitting a goal. She is fast, flamboyant and, like many of her teammates, displays no shortage of confidence.

A recent 4-3 exhibition triumph over China -- albeit on a narrow bumpy field -- did nothing to dampen the squad's self-assuredness, despite showing defensive deficiencies in the second half against North Korea. which had Nigeria on the ropes in the closing minutes.

The Nigerians are nothing if they are not colorful. Akide's hair is dyed green and white, captain Florence Omagbemi's is bright orange, and goalkeeper Ann Chiejine's is white Omagbeni leads the midfield; weeper Eberechi and left back Kikelomo Ajayi spark the defense.

The goalkeeper is a bit of a showboat, often opting to make seemingly sensational saves on what could be routine stops. "We can beat anybody," Akide said.

Gary Davidson is managing editor of SoccerTimes and can be e-mailed at info@soccertimes.com.

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