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U.S. Women Take on Costa Rica for Olympic Berths

Only Costa Rica stands between the U.S. Women’s National Team and a berth in the 2004 Athens Olympics as the two teams will meet tomorrow in the second semifinal of the CONCACAF Final Round Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament. The match will not be available on American TV, but fans can follow the action on’s MatchTracker presented by Philips Electronics starting at 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT.  Mexico and Canada meet in a grudge match at Noon. After defeating Mexico, 2-0, in the USA’s final Group B match last Sunday, U.S. head coach April Heinrichs gave the team Monday off to rest and recover.  A group of players used the morning to finish up some souvenir shopping, mostly purchasing items in the vast array of beautiful wood products available in Costa Rica, from coasters to mirrors to masks to animal figurines – but Angela Hucles and Kate Markgraf went one better, buying traditional Costa Rican dresses, which they both wore to the USA’s afternoon excursion to the U.S. Embassy in San Jose.  John Danilovich, the U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica, as well as former U.S. National Team and current Costa Rica National Team head coach Steve Sampson, greeted the U.S. team at the embassy, where the players had a mixer of sorts.  The players signed autographs for tons of American kids whose parents are stationed in Costa Rica, U.S. Marines grilled hamburgers and the players posed for numerous photos.  Ambassador Danilovich and U.S. head coach April Heinrichs both gave shorts speeches, with the Ambassador telling Heinrichs that there has not been an event in Costa Rica that has brought so many Americans together in one place like the U.S. games, except for a recent Luciano Pavarotti concert.  After the embassy visit, the U.S. team headed out for a team meal at Tony Roma’s, where much meat was consumed and players’ stomachs satisfied.  The USA held what will likely be its last training at the Dos Pinos dairy factory on Tuesday morning, running through a short practice where high winds once again made the end-of-training finishing drill just a bit more exciting.

The USA and Costa Rica have met just three times, but faced each other almost exactly six months ago at The Home Depot Center in Los Angles in the first-ever match for a U.S. National Team at the new stadium and site of the U.S. Soccer National Training Center.  The USA came away with a 5-0 win in that match which was the second to last game before the start of the 2003 Women’s World Cup, and got goals from five different players. Ironically, it was Costa Rica that stood in the USA’s way in qualifying for the 2003 Women’s World Cup, but the Americans dispatched the Ticas, 7-0, in Seattle, Wash., to claim a spot in the fourth Women’s World Cup before it was moved from China to the USA.  While Costa Rica has impressively climbed into what probably is the fourth spot in CONCACAF women’s soccer, behind the three other semifinalists – the USA, Canada and Mexico -- and a boisterous and vocal crowd is sure to be behind the home team at Estadio Nacional, the Ticas will be hard pressed to keep up with the athleticism and speed of the heavily favored U.S. team.  The rock hard surface of Estadio National may play a factor in the match as both teams like to keep the ball on the ground.  Costa Rica may be without leading scorer Megan Chavez, who was carried off the field on a stretcher yesterday during Costa Rica’s narrow, 2-1, loss to Canada in the final Group A match.  The USA has scored 17 goals so far in the tournament (two more than any other country), while allowing none (the only country thus far with a zero balance in the GA category) and in fact is working on 589-minute streak of not allowing a goal.  Costa Rica has scored eight goals in the tournament and allowed three.  Following is a breakdown of the team’s goal scorers.

Shannon Boxx  3
Cindy Parlow  3
Abby Wambach 3
Mia Hamm  2
Kristine Lilly  1
Aly Wagner  1
Shannon MacMillan 1
Lindsay Tarpley 1
Own Goals  2

Megan Chavez 3
Shirley Cruz    2
Ana Gabriel Campos   1  
Gabriela Trujillo   1
Cindy Rodriguez   1

Following are selected quotes from U.S. head coach April Heinrichs on Costa Rica:

On Costa Rican head coach Ricardo Rodriguez:
“I think Ricardo has done a great job for the Costa Rican team.  They play for him and they play very hard.  They have some very nice players and I think Costa Rica is really getting better every time I see them play.”

On Costa Rica’s improvement since Women’s World Cup qualifying at the end of 2002:
“Costa Rica has really improved in the last 15 months since I saw them at World Cup qualifying.  They have a good possession style, they like to combine and every player is competent on the ball.  They may not be as big or athletic as other countries like the USA or Canada, but when they have the ball it’s tough to get it from them.  We are hoping to have a good deal of the possession ourselves.” 

On having offensive success against the scrappy Costa Ricans:
“Their back line plays sort of a rotating sweeper and it’s difficult to break down and get behind as they always have cover.  Their central defenders (captain Gabriela Trujillo and Karol Segura Arguedas) held their own against Canada and despite their diminutive size, really battled in the air.  We are just hoping to put our best two halves of the tournament together.”

The Canada vs. Costa Rica clash yesterday at Estadio Eladio Rosabal Cordero turned into what was definitely the most exciting match of the tournament and perhaps produced the most stirring moment in CONCACAF women’s soccer history.  In front of a raucous crowd of almost 2,000 that packed the small stadium in Heredia, and with first and second place in the group at stake, and thus a pairing with either the USA or Mexico, Canada took a 2-0 first half lead on goals from 2003 WUSA Rookie of the Year Christine Latham and 17-year-old Aysha Jamani. Canada seemed to be in total control, but that that changed in the second half as Costa Rica, with some excellent possession soccer, took the game to the Maple Leafs, and almost made up for its overall lack of size and strength with some tremendous ball skills and huge heart.  Shirley Cruz pulled a goal back for the home side in the 60th minute, finishing a brilliant chipped shot after a dazzling combination at the top of the penalty area, and ripped off a celebration worthy of any men’s World Cup, sprinting to the team bench with all her teammates in tow before jumping into the arms of an assistant coach as the whole team fell into a huge dog pile.  The electricity in the stadium was inspiring and chants of “Si Se Puede!” (Yes, We Can!) rose from the crowd, many of which, like in the USA, were young girls, as they urged their team forward for an equalizer.  Costa Rica, which would have needed two more goals to win the game and avoid the USA in the semifinals, had a few stadium-rattling chances to score, but so did Canada (Christine Sinclair hit the underside of the crossbar with a screamer), and neither team could find the net again.  Canada picked up five yellow cards in a rough and tumble game which would have been one the greatest upsets in CONCACAF women’s history had Costa Rica been able to pull the match out against the 2003 Women’s World Cup semifinalists.  In the end, Canada got the deserved win, and Costa Rica earned some pride, and a huge match on which to build its women’s soccer future.

U.S. athletic trainer Cody Malley has had numerous visitors to the training room in the hotel this week, but most not because of injuries.  It seems that the wireless Internet at the hotel works in two places…in the hotel lobby and, for some strange reason, in the training room.  Yesterday afternoon, there were no less than six players spread around the room, on the floor, under tables and on medical trunks typing away on their lap tops as Malley was attempting to identify who needed treatment and who was busy Instant Messaging with their boyfriends and husbands.  The traffic got so heavy that Malley put up a sign on the front door, with hourly rates for training room Internet access.  There is no word if any of the players have paid up, but Malley was offering free Gatorade and snacks to the training room denizens.

Such is the nature of CONCACAF that the U.S. players have become icons of a sort to the players of the developing women’s soccer nations, who read, watch and hear about the professional players in the USA with endorsement contracts, shoe deals and matches on national TV. There was no better example of that than on the night after the USA’s win over Mexico when several players from Trinidad & Tobago came to the U.S. hotel looking for autographs. Finding only Abby Wambach doing some e-mail in the hotel lobby, the U.S. forward obliged their request to sign and chatted up the Trinidadians (who called her “WOM-BATCH”) for a few minutes before several more players returned from a nightly jaunt to TCBY. Leslie Osborne and Heather O’Reilly, who have fond memories of T&T after playing there during qualifying for the 2002 U-19 Women’s World Championship, also signed for the islanders.

She Said It:
La Nacion, one of the major newspapers in Costa Rica, perhaps leaning a bit toward hyperbole, had this line in a story after the Ticas lost to Canada:

Translated: “The result condemned Costa Rica to a game in the semifinals against the best female players on the planet.”