In this playful piece, we pose a question or make a statement about something in soccer that will be debated by two individuals from the same walk of life. Be it a coach, player, journalist or whomever, the two will each give their side of the story, so to speak.
In this case, we’ve enlisted the help of two of the biggest names in women’s soccer. In one corner, bearing the torch for the future of the U.S. Women’s National Team ... April Heinrichs, who helped the team win five tournament titles along with an Olympic silver medal in 2000 and will be guiding the team as they begin their Women’s World Cup title defense this year with CONCACAF Qualifying. In the other corner, carrying the flag of the successful Women’s United Soccer Association and with an Olympic gold medal and a Women’s World Cup title to his name as the immediate past WNT head coach ... Tony DiCicco, the Commissioner of WUSA.
This month’s question: With the Four Nations Tournament just completed a week ago and the 2003 Women’s World Cup just 18 months away, who are the top five women’s national teams in the world? The answer from both April and Tony, essentially, is that the more things have changed since USA ‘99, the more they’ve stays the same.
April Heinrichs, current U.S. WNT head coach
It is difficult to rank the top five teams in the world, as all the teams are very close in individual and
team talent (evidenced by the recent results in the Four Nations Tournament held last week in China in which Norway beat the USA, USA beat China, China beat Germany and Germany beat Norway, all in five-day span). Also, much credit must be given to Sweden, who made it to the European Championship Final and is much improved in many areas and Nigeria, who seem capable of making a run to a world championship final in the coming years. Also, Canada, Denmark, England, France, and
Spain are all capable of getting a positive result against the top five. But as we get just five picks, following are evaluations, in alphabetical order, of the top women’s national teams in the world.
Over the last three years, Brazil has developed into one of the top-5 teams in the world. Based on the strength of their soccer culture, ball skills and overall soccer savvy with and without the ball, Brazil is always a threat to any opponent. Sissi and Katia are two of the world's best players, and having them on the same team can be a lethal combination in the attack, as many WUSA teams saw in 2001. When you talk about "tackling presence", Brazil and Nigeria have more bite in their tackle than the Pittsburgh Steelers! With continued support from their federation, Brazil will develop into a team that wins the big tournaments, which is a scary proposition.
China has always been one of the top-5 teams in the world, dating back to 1991. China beat Norway 4-0 in the opening match of the 1991 Women's World Championships, were talented but unlucky in '95, finished second to the US in '96 and we all remember the WWC '99 match at the Rose Bowl, which
ended in penalty kicks. China was also one of the top teams in the 2000 Olympics, but fell in the "group of death" at the feet of Norway (Olympic Champions) and the USA (Silver Medalists). Since the Olympics, China has regrouped to replace aging veterans with younger, more energetic and creative players. Although, it will be tough for them to replace Sun Wen if she stays retired from the international game. Nevertheless, China is the most creative, athletic, and unpredictable team in the world. They recently adopted the oft popular 4-5-1 system we're seeing in Europe, which means they're trying new systems for the first time in 10 years. Give them the home field advantage in 2003 and they're the team to beat.
Historically, Germany reigns supreme in the European Championships held every four years. They won again in classic fashion in 2001, their third in a row. They traditionally epitomize the same style of play as the German men's game. They are famous for their 'combination play', which is difficult to defend against because their speed of play is so very quick, and their players read the game and move off the ball very well. Germany plays perhaps the most attractive attacking style in the world. Germany has been the perennial 'runner up' in most world tournaments (3rd in '00 Olympics, and losing in the quarter finals to the USA in '99). With Birgit Prinz playing for Germany, they can score often and consistently.
As the runner-up in the 1991 Women’s World Cup, world champions in '95, bronze medalists at the '96 Olympics, third place finishers in '99, and gold medalists in the 2000 Olympic, it’s clear to see that Norway wins consistently, both at home and abroad. They are tough mentally and physically. Their success in the world of women's soccer parallels that of the United States. Much like U.S. Soccer, their federation also provides their team and staff full support. Norway is small enough logistically to train together as a national team every Tuesday throughout the year, which provides them continuity
and touches on the ball. They favor a very defensive 4-5-1 system, making them tough to beat on any day. They are patient, understand the game very well, play their role within the team and stick to their direct, counter-attack game plan. If they can keep up their goals-to-shots ratio, then they are dangerous in every tournament against any opponent.
1991 World Champions, '95 3rd place, '96 Olympic gold medalists, '99 World Champions and '00 Olympic silver medalists. Our goal is to win every game and every tournament. Even if our U-21's are
competing against full women's national teams, we go after the win. The United States doesn't sit back, play defensive, play to be destructive and hope for a counter goal. We play to win, to entertain, to put opponents under pressure from the start to the end of the game, and to go after every opponent with the same vigor regardless of their status in the women's game. Winning consistently in soccer is the most difficult goal to achieve, yet we endeavor to keep "our eyes on the prize." With the retirement of Michelle Akers and Carla Overbeck in the year 2000, we will look to Joy Fawcett to lead our defense, Julie Foudy to serve as playmaker, and the trio of Mia Hamm, Tiffeny Milbrett and Cindy Parlow to pursue goals in waves. Yes, winning consistently is more difficult than it's ever been for the USA, but that won't slow us down — it will only add fuel to the fire. CONCACAF Qualifying begins in October 2002, thus we will spend the remainder of the year evaluating young talent from the U-21 National Team and new players from the WUSA. Additionally, the second year of the women's professional game in the U.S. will enhance the professionalism of the women's game in the America which will elevate the level of the U.S. Women's National Team.
Tony DiCicco, former U.S. WNT head coach
Nothing has changed as far as the hierarchy of women’s international soccer is concerned. The only two nations to have ever won a Women’s World Cup or an Olympic gold medal are the USA and Norway. The elite teams remain. China is still looking to break through for that world title. Germany dominates everyone in Europe, but lacks the final punch at the world stage. Brazil is a question mark in 2002, but I still think they will be in the hunt but coming up short in 2003.
For sure, there are considerable improvements shown by Canada under Norwegian World Cup 1995 Champion coach Even Pellerud and Sweden must always command respect because they are capable of beating anyone. Team Denmark seems to get one’s attention at various times during the run up to world events and teams like Russia and France have been looking to break through to challenge the best, but their formula for success is not complete.
So…who is the best? I still feel when all is said and done, the USA has the best chance to repeat in 2003. America has the best youth structure, the best collegiate system, the best professional league with the WUSA about to launch year 2, the best professional league and, most importantly, the will and know-how to win. The major concerns for the USA and Coach April Heinrichs is can they realize the level of success needed with integrating the new, but inexperienced stars with the established stars. Can players like Danielle Slaton, Aly Wagner, Aleisha Cramer, and Christie Welsch not only find a spot, but make key contributions in key games with the established stars like Tiffeny Milbrett, Kristine Lilly, Cindy Parlow, Julie Foudy and the gang? I, for one, think they will and I also think they will be the team to beat in China.
But…never count Norway out. They are Vikings and warriors in every sense of the word. They have fighting power that rivals the U.S. mentality and still claim the distinction of being the only international team with a winning record versus the USA. The Norwegians also have some veterans like Hege Riise (Carolina Courage) and some exceptional young talent like Dagny Melgren and Raginald Gulbrandsen (Boston Breakers). What is interesting is the Norwegians seem to be changing their playing style with less direct play. But, one thing that has not changed with the Norwegian style of play is an awesome counter-attack. This is their key weapon, whether they do it by launching 50-yard rockets to Gulbrandsen’s head up top or whether their counterattack begins with a series of shorter penetrating passes, the end product is danger for the opposing goalkeeper.
China can, of course, not be overlooked. They have been too close in the ’96 Olympics and, of course, the 1999 World Cup. But, there are questions. It took the previous team years to compete mentally with the USA and Norway. With veterans leaving and new stars emerging, will they lose the necessary psychological dimension? I do believe that the WUSA is an excellent training ground for the Chinese players and this year we will have somewhere between 6-9 in the league. Players like Pu Wei have
to continue to develop and if Sun Wen regains her health, she will once again spear a very athletic and talented group from Bai Jie to Fan Yunjie, they all can play. The question is what level will they compete at? In 1999, they had the look in their eye. In 2000, they never got it going. Having said all of the above, it may just come down to how they compete and play at home. Is being home with all the expectations too much or just the boost they need? Only time will tell.
Germany clearly has everything a team needs to win, but except for a loss in the 1995 World Cup Final, they have never really gotten close. Remember, they play great in Europe and in the ‘95 World Cup was played in Sweden. What may work for Germany is that they are getting to more of the tournaments that other nations take part in. For instance, they are going to the Nordic Open Tournament in Portugal for the first time in 2002. They were in China for the Four Nations tournament last month and came in second. Whether a player like Birgit Prinz (Carolina Courage) is coming out of the midfield or attacking from a forward position, one thing is constant…she finds the back of the net. They are exceptional in midfield with Bettina Weigmann and Maren Meinert (Boston Breakers). They have flank talent in Sandra Smisek and an experience goalkeeper in Silke Rottenberg. But, they lost Doris Fitchen (voted best WUSA Defender in 2001) via retirement, and that is one player that isn’t replaced easily.
So, one has to believe that Germany will be good, very good, but will only challenge for the Cup in 03.
Brazil has been virtually inactive since the 1999 World Cup. With funding all but gone, they will regroup and be dangerous, but simply will not have invested in enough international games to move past all the above teams to challenge for the top prize. They do have talent, though. With Sissi’s ability to hold the ball in midfield, Katia’s speed and explosiveness and with a host of young players like Tania, Nene, Formiga and Daniella -- all of which got experience from the ’99 Cup -- they could serve as spoilers.
One last point--although the top teams are still the top teams, and the same can be said for the
Men’s game also. Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina and France are still the teams to beat. However, just as in the men’s game, there are more teams that can knock off the elite teams on the women’s side also, which is a good thing for the game. The next 18 months are for position only. The teams that develop the future stars the fastest will have the edge. Veterans are necessary, but the 2003 Cup will belong to the youth.
Table of Contents
In this second issue of 2002 of U.S. Soccer’s monthly fan newsletter / e-zine, you’ll find pieces on a pair of CyberRays, a pair of Gold Cup 2002 champions, a pair of MLS Drafts and a pair of Women’s National Team coaches in the eight items listed below. Some will return next month, others will be brand spankin’ new for March.
1) Armchair Midfielder (A Look at the MLS Allocation and Dispersal Drafts)
2) DJ for a Day (w/ MNT defender Pablo Mastroeni)
3) Queries and Anecdotes (w/ MNT forward Josh Wolff)
4) Making it in the Show (w/ WNT goalkeeper LaKeyshia Beene)
5) Superstar!!! (w/ WNT defender Brandi Chastain)
6) Mark That Calendar (MNT vs. Italy -- Feb. 13)
7) Point/Counterpoint (w/ current WNT coach April Heinrichs & former WNT coach Tony DiCicco)
8) "You Don’t Know Jack (Marshall)" (MLS Draft trivia)
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