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U.S. Olympic Women

U.S. Olympic Men

U.S. Olympc teams

Women placed in favorite's role.

By Robert Wagman

(Monday, September 11, 2000) -- The United States Olympic teams are going to Australia with very different goals, expectations and burdens.

The U.S. women are the clear favorites. For them, nothing less than gold will suffice. A second- or third-place finish will be considered a disaster.

In contrast, not much is expected of the U.S. men. They are underdogs in their preliminary group. Just reaching the quarterfinals will be enough to send the men home happy.

There is a critical difference between the men's and women's competition. Men's teams are age-limited. Only three players can be over the age of 23. There are also 16 teams competing Ė compared to eight for the women -- chosen through a qualifying process on a geographic basis which means a considerable difference in strength of the teams in the four preliminary groups.

On the women's side, there is no age limitation which means every country is represented by its full national team. There are only eight teams, the quarterfinalists in last year's Women's World Cup, except Australia which was an automatic entry. Russia, therefore, did not qualify because it was rated the worst quarterfinalist through WWC results. The eight teams are divided into two opening groups.

While the U.S. women are the favorites to win it all, their preliminary group includes both China and Norway (and Nigeria) through a nonsensical selection process administered by world governing body FIFA. Only two teams were seeded in the draw -- the U.S. and Australia, probably the weakest team in field, leaving the Americans to be drawn into the most difficult preliminary group ever for women. With the U.S., China and Norway the three established international powers since the first world championship in 1991 in one group, one will not make it into the semifinals

The U.S. is 22-4-7 in 2000, but all four losses have come against Norway, which is 3-2-1 against the U.S. this year and is the only nation to hold an all-time winning record against the Americans, and China, which is 1-0-1 in its two meetings with the U.S. in 2000. The Americans have won only half of their 16 games this year against the Olympic participants.

Nigeria is the weak link of the preliminary group, a team with great speed and little experience.

Fourteen of the 18 players on the roster were part of the unforgettable 1999 World Cup championship experience, but there have been critical personnel changes and tactical changes.

Gone is 1999 WWC "Most Valuable Player" Michelle Akers, who recently retired after a succession of ailments, while team co-captain and central defender Carla Overbeck has been slow to recover from a knee injury, not to mention the effects of Graves Disease, and will not start in Australia. Both were part of the world championship team of 1991, the World Cup semifinalist of 1995 and the first womenís Olympic gold medalist team in 1996.

Goalkeeper Briana Scurry has spent much of the year injured and lost her starting job to Siri Mullinix.

April Heinrichs, who took over from Tony DiCicco after the 1999 WWC triumph, has changed the U.S. formation from DiCicco's offensive-minded 4-3-3 to a more defensive-oriented 4-4-2. Joy Fawcett has moved from right back to the center of defense where she joins Kate Sobrero. Christie Pearce has taken the place of Overbeck in Fawcett's previous position on the right with Brandi Chastain in her customary spot at left back.

Behind them is Mullinix who is quicker than Scurry, but lacks the big international match experience. How well she plays under pressure might go a long way in determining how well the U.S. will do.

The rest of the team consists of familiar names. Julie Foudy has emerged as the holding midfielder in Heinrichs new alignment. Kristine Lilly, with a world-record 217 international appearances but mired in a year-long scoring drought, continues to hold down her place in the left midfield. Shannon MacMillian will probably be on the right side and Lorrie Fair has replaced Akers in the midfield.

Up front, as usual, will be Mia Hamm, the most celebrated player in women's soccer with 125 goals. Her partner in the forward slot will be Tiffeny Milbrett. Off the bench up front will be the experienced Cindy Parlow, who lost her starting job to MacMillan with the formation change.

Sara Whalen is an experienced, versatile sub, while midfielder Nikki Serlenga was the most pleasant surprise off the pre-Olympic residence camp and likely will see some critical minutes.

Surprisingly, considering its firepower, the U.S. has had a great deal of trouble scoring this year in key matches. The 4-0 victory over Brazil in the final pre-Olympic tune-up in San Jose is hoped to be a sign that their scoring ability has returned. In eight of the nine previous matches before the Brazil send-off, the U.S. scored only a single goal, and four times it prevailed in one-goal matches in which the lone American goal was scored via penalty kick.

The U.S. will play all of its group matches in Melbourne. It opens play Thursday against a rejuvenated Norway. Captain Gro Espesethís return from injury will help the Norwegian defense. If playmaker Hege Riise and scorer Marianne Pettersen have a good tournament, Norway will be tough to beat.

Three nights later the U.S. will must face China, which it defeated in a memorable memorable penalty-kick shootout after a forgettable 120 minutes of scoreless play at the Women's World Cup. Chinese coach Ma Yuanan has changed the team to an attacking, physical unit. The results so far this year have been mixed -- two losses to Norway and ties with Canada and Australia. Star forward Sun Wen has been nursing an injured knee; her return to form could be crucial to the nationís hopes.

On September 20, itís Nigeria, a veteran squad with five players having been on the national team for almost a decade. They are fast and dangerous offensively, have demonstrated little concept or inclination on defense.

So, the U.S is the favorite, but the U.S. must be ready to play when the whistle blows for match with Norway. In any match between the Americans, Norway and China, there really is no favorite and one will be on the outside looking in when the medal round arrives.

Senior correspondent Robert Wagman can be e-mailed at bobwagman@soccertimes.com.

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