COME BACK SUN!: The U.S. players were pleasantly surprised to see the sun when they arrived in Hong Kong early Sunday morning, and we don’t mean Chinese star midfielder Sun Wen. As the team bus weaved its way around the picturesque harbor and inlets of Hong Kong on its way to Shenzhen, it was actually warm and sunny with blue skies reminiscent of their recent departure city of Los Angles. Those were weather conditions not previously encountered by the U.S. team on their three previous frigid January visits to China. Alas, it was just a tease, as the temperatures plunged, the skies turned gray and a haze returned on Monday when the USA conducted its first training session on a practice field outside Shenzhen Stadium, where all the tournament matches will be played. (The USA’s training gear did not clear customs at the border in time to practice on Sunday afternoon so the team went for a 30-minute jog and stretch instead). Still, the low 50-degree weather was far from the icy temperatures and gloom the USA encountered previous years in Guangzhou and Shanghai, cities much further north than Shenzhen. The USA opens the tournament against Sweden on Friday, January 30 (time of the match is still TBA). Following is the tournament schedule, which includes China’s versions of Super Bowl Sunday on Feb. 1 with the resumption of one of the world’s greatest women’s soccer rivalries – USA vs. China:
2004 FOUR NATIONS TOURNAMENT SCHEDULE
Friday, January 30
USA vs. Sweden
Sunday, Feb. 1
Canada vs. Sweden
USA vs. China
Tuesday, Feb. 3
USA vs. Canada
China vs. Sweden
U.S. TEAM GETS CULTURED: The temperatures at Tuesday training were also a bit crisp, with gloomy skies, but it was actually fine weather for soccer and definitely not cold enough to deter a team outing to the Chinese Folk Culture Villages, a sort of Epcot Center for China, featuring 24 separate "villages" highlighting Chinese folk arts, customs and architecture. The beautiful park with ancient looking recreations of classic Chinese buildings, spread amid lakes (which featured a waterfall), fountains, and attractive landscaping was definitely an oasis from the real Shenzhen, a mostly commercial city featuring one looming skyscraping apartment complex after another, along with massive office buildings – some old, some cutting edge. The highlights of the afternoon included goalkeeper Siri Mullinix riding a small, white pony, Tiffany Roberts and Kristine Lilly jumping rope "double dutch" style as two Chinese guys spun the rope, U.S. head coach April Heinrichs taking a 200-yard rope slide "ride" while harnessed on a sort of "zip line," and the re-creation of a massive "horse battle" inside a huge dirt arena, evoking images of something straight out of the movie "Gladiator."
BRUSH WITH GREATNESS:On the Friday that the U.S. Women’s National Team left for China, a front-page story in USA Today featured U.S. Men’s National Team goalkeeper Tim Howard, who has achieved meteoric success with the world’s top club, Manchester United. The article spawned an anecdote from 19-year-old Heather O’Reilly, who hails from East Brunswick, N.J, who called North Brunswick, N.J. native Howard, "my homie." It seems that after O’Reilly attended the Manchester United vs. Barcelona match at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia last summer, she got to go down in the tunnel where the players were exiting the field. O’Reilly’s old club coach pulled Howard over and introduced him to the pride of the East Brunswick High School Lady Bears. "Yeah, I’ve heard of you," said Howard to O’Reilly, who was still on crutches after breaking her leg in June. "I tell people we’re from the same town." Howard, who was in the same prom limo as O’Reilly’s older brother, Steven, could only muster a few words but admitted in the airport before the USA left for Hong Kong, "Now I tell people I’m from the same town as him."
THERE’S ALWAYS RICE:As usual, on the USA’s trips to China, there can be some culinary "challenges" but the hotel food has proven to be quite edible and in the case of some dishes, even tasty. While there has been the usual cavalcade of seafood "delicacies" that have certainly not felt the prick of a U.S. fork, a young chef who makes fresh noodles and dumplings right before the players eyes has added some fun and entertainment to lunch time. Somehow turning a mass of dough into spaghetti thin noodles by pushing, pulling and throwing the dough, has proven popular with the players, along with bowls of hot soup with noodles and a tomato-chicken broth. While some players have been more daring than others in sampling the local food, the peanut butter, jam, instant noodles, macaroni and cheese and cereals brought from the USA are staples at every meal. If all else fails, there’s a McDonald’s about 100 yards from the team hotel.
SHOE SHINE!! SHOE SHINE!!: In a somewhat bizarre scene right outside the U.S. hotel, there are at least a dozen women and girls, ranging in ages from very young to very old, vying to shine the shoes of the people walking by, and none seem to be doing much business. One elderly lady went so far as to chase the U.S. players as they walked to their bus before training, plopping down her chair and foot bench right among them while berating them in Chinese to get their shoes shined, apparently undeterred by the fact that the U.S. team was wearing mostly white Nike running shoes which would not do well with black shoe polish.
WHEN IS "FRIENDS" ON?:The U.S. team has been slightly disappointed to find among the numerous TV channels available in their rooms only three are in English, and that doesn’t included CNN, MTV, HBO or ESPN. The USA does have access to a slightly stuffy BBC World News channel out of England, a movie channel that has some films in English, but some dubbed in Chinese (watching Mel Gibson speak Chinese just ain’t the same) and the increasingly popular National Geographic channel, which has featured insightful and educational shows on bats, hyenas, monk seals and the West African dung beatles, among numerous other topics. Needless to say, the U.S. players have been watching numerous DVDs in their rooms to pass the time.
I’LL HAVE A TALL ICED CARAMEL MACCHIATO, PLEASE: When the USA arrived at its hotel in Shanghai, China, for last year’s Four Nations Tournament, the players were delighted to see a Starbucks right on the corner about 300 yards from the hotel. The players made daily pilgrimages to the one place in Shanghai that both the workers and the players spoke the same language, that of the "coffee order." No such luck in Shenzhen on the Starbucks placement. But that didn’t stop a group of players from searching out the nearest Starbucks after lunch on Monday, hopping in cabs for the 10-minute ride ($2 American) to the City Plaza mall, a high-end shopping center with numerous familiar brands. The players found the Starbucks and got their caffeine fix, but it was the cab rides that produced some adrenaline. Anyone who has ever been in a Chinese taxi may finish the ride (if they’re lucky to actually finish it) with the impression that traffic laws are non-existent in this country. During their ride back to the hotel, the cab containing Aly Wagner and Kylie Bivens almost plowed into a bicyclist with a big basket of vegetables on the front. "Almost" being the operative word, as somehow the mass of cars, buses, bikes, trucks, motor scooters, motorcycles and endless pedestrians seem to co-exist quite nicely, and with little incident, on the bustling streets of the large Chinese cities.
CONFERENCE KYLE REPLACES MR. KOALA:On occasion, U.S. Women’s National Team players have been known to travel with a particularly meaningful stuffed animal, none more legendary than "Mr. Koala," a stuffed Koala Bear toy belonging to defender Jenny Benson, which she received on her first birthday and has taken on every single soccer trip she’s ever been on. "Mr. Koala" made trips to China with Benson in 2001 and 2003, but as she is not on the roster for the Four Nations Tournament, midfielder Leslie Osborne’s "Conference Kyle" is picking up the slack. "Conference Kyle" was given to Osborne by her boyfriend, Kyle, the starting point guard on the Santa Clara Broncos basketball team as a congratulations gift after she was named the West Coast Conference Player of the Year, hence the name. The "Build-A-Bear" is complete with a soccer uniform with Osborne’s college number 10, cleats, shin guards and a small soccer ball attached to its left foot. While "Conference Kyle" looks like a lion or a tiger, "it’s actually a leopard," said Osborne. The bear, umm..leopard, somehow has lost one cleat and one shin guard, but is still in much better shape than the much traveled, much stitched "Mr. Koala," who turned 26 on January 25. Osborne took "Conference Kyle" on his first road trip to the NCAA quarterfinals where the Broncos fell to UNC, but says she is starting a new lucky streak with the bear after having made the roster for the Four Nations, her first trip abroad with the full National Team.
SWEDEN ARRIVES, MINUS LJUNGBERG:The tired-looking Sweden squad arrived in Shenzhen on Tuesday night, but the 2003 Women’s World Cup runners-up are minus several of their top players, including dynamo forward Hanna Ljungberg, who tore her right ACL in training last week. Ljungberg, who scored Sweden’s lone goal in the 2003 Women’s World Cup Final, a 2-1 loss to Germany, also injured a knee at the 1999 Women’s World Cup. She has six months to be ready for the Olympics, a realistic time frame in this day and age. Sweden has 16 players from its Women’s World Cup team (the USA has 15), but is also missing star goalkeeper Caroline Johnsson and team captain Malin Anderson, both out with injuries.
SHE SAID IT:
U.S. captain Julie Foudy after patiently spending five minutes trying, and failing, to order a cup of decaf coffee from the non-English speaking restaurant waitress at the team hotel:
"Explaining the word ‘decaffeinated’ was just a little too ambitious."