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U.S. WNT Ready to Face China on Super Sunday

U.S. Women's National Soccer Team
Notes from Wuhan, China

The USA trained on Saturday, Jan. 25, at the beautiful Wuhan Sports Center Stadium, a magnificent venue which opened just last year and seats 60,000 fans, all under cover.  Unfortunately, the weather was not so nice, as a steady, misty rain fell on the players throughout the hour workout.  The surface seemed to hold up well and should be quite playable for the USA vs. China match (Sunday, Jan. 26, at 3:35 p.m. local / 2:35 a.m. ET), which has generated huge interest in Wuhan.  Organizers are expecting 40-50,000 fans for the clash between teams that have met in two championship finals, all of whom should be in fine voice to cheer on their team. The television audience for the match is expected to be in the neighborhood of 100 million people. Tickets are priced from 40-200 Yuan, or $5-25 American dollars, for the doubleheader that also features Norway vs. Germany.  As the 27,000 who attended the doubleheader in Yiwu sounded more like 50,000, the crowd on Sunday should be whipped into a frenzy and oppressively loud, giving the U.S. team a great preview of how intense the environment will be at the Women's World Cup come September.  Against China in China, the USA is a more than respectable 3-2-4 all-time.

All four head coaches and three team captains - Joy Fawcett for the USA, Hege Riise for Norway and Bettina Wiegmann for Germany, attended a pre-tournament press conference in Yiwu.  A running theme in all the coach's comments was to use this tournament to give some young players a chance to perform against the best teams in the world while hopefully helping create a buzz about the upcoming Women's World Cup.  What was also clear is that China will be under immense pressure from their media, which has been highly critical of their team.  China hosted the first Women's World Cup in 1991, but was knocked out of the tournament in the quarterfinals. China lost in the semifinals in 1995 and then played in the historic Final in 1999, falling in penalty kicks to the USA.  The media frenzy around the Chinese team for this September's tournament will be intense, perhaps even more than the U.S. players faced in 1999.  At least 50 media members surrounded China head coach Ma Liangxing after the press conference and grilled him for 15 minutes.

Following four great days in the bustling city of Shanghai, the U.S. team bussed four hours South to Yiwu on Jan. 21 in preparation for their first match against Norway on Jan. 23, a 3-1 U.S. victory.  The Americans found Yiwu, a gray industrial city, in stark contrast to the vibrant Shanghai, but were impressed by the Meihu Sports Center Stadium, a modern venue with huge tent-like overhanging structures covering most of the stadium's seats.  With a heavy fog-like haze dripping over Yiwu, dark narrow streets lined with shops, and foot and bicycle traffic constantly coming and going, the city evoked images of Ridley Scott's classic sci-fi film "Blade Runner" and kept the Americans inside for most of their stay.  The stay in Yiwu ended well, however, as the sun finally came out on game day and the fans in Yiwu came out 27,000-strong to create an electric environment at the stadium for the doubleheader.  The USA departed the next morning as all four teams bussed an hour-and-a-half to Hangzhou, then boarded a charter flight to Wuhan, site of the 2003 Women's World Cup Final Draw as well as eight matches in the tournament itself, including two quarterfinals.

Wuhan is in the geographic center of China, almost the same distance from Women's World Cup venues Chengdu (to the West) and Shanghai (to the East).  The teams arrived at the Wuhan airport to a World Cup atmosphere as the terminal was packed with fans awaiting the arrival of the Chinese team.  The flag-waving, red headband-wearing and drum playing fans mobbed the entire Chinese team, but especially star Sun Wen. A minor scuffle developed between the rabid fans and the Chinese police, who literally formed a human barricade around Sun in order to get her onto the team bus, leaving no doubt as to who is the "Mia Hamm of China."  While the U.S. team has had a police escort everywhere it has traveled, which has made the navigation of some major traffic congestion a bit easier, about a half-dozen cars full of fans, all with huge Chinese flags sticking out of the windows and blowing in the wind, also escorted the busses to the host hotel in Wuhan.  On the back hood of one car was written in Chinese: "I am ready for the World Cup!"

The U.S. players enjoyed Shanghai, often called the "Paris of the East," if not for the character and electricity of the city, then for the shopping.  The players spent hours, and plenty of Yuan, at local markets where tremendous bargains were to be had, especially if one was adept at bargaining.  The Chinese merchants met their match in the U.S. players, who were treated like VIP shoppers with every seller eager to earn their business, tugging on the players to get them into their shops and stalls.  The Chinese saying of "If the new is to come, the old must go" is very represented in Shanghai, where old buildings are far outnumbered by modern towers and massive apartment complexes.  One aspect of Shanghai that the players had a hard time getting used to was the seemingly overall lack of traffic laws, or if they do exist, the indifference to following them, as cars, trucks, bicycles and motor-scooters somehow co-exist on the constantly flowing criss-crossed arteries of the city.  The USA will return to Shanghai on Jan. 27 to play its final match of the tournament at Hongkou Stadium against Germany on Jan. 29.

After an afternoon of shopping at the market in Shanghai, Shannon MacMillan and Joy Fawcett, along with teammates Abby Wambach and Tiffeny Milbrett, and Fawcett's 8-year-old daughter Katey and 5-year-old daughter Carli, decided to go for dinner at the Hard Rock Café.  It turned out to be an adventure.  They all jumped into a cab with cheeseburgers on their mind believing that the words "Hard Rock Café" would get them to the world famous restaurant.  They should have learned how to say it in Chinese.  Their cab driver, who spoke no English, just started driving down a back street as the U.S. players tried to make him understand their destination.  The blank stare from the driver and the fact he wouldn't turn around caused the players to roll down the windows and start scanning the streets for Americans.  The cab drove a good five minutes with the players yelling out the windows, "Do you speak English?  Do you know where the Hard Rock Café is?"  Luckily, Milbrett spotted a man in a car next to them who turned out to be English, but who spoke Chinese, and the players frantically screamed to get his attention.  The players explained their conundrum to the Good Samaritan, who told the cab driver where the players wanted to go.  The cab driver then said something in Chinese to the Englishman, who laughed and said, "He said he is going to cheat you and take you on a tour of Shanghai."  Luckily, he was joking and the players arrived at the Hard Rock Café for a fare of just $2.50.

The U.S. players will not get to watch the Super Bowl live, which will kick off in China at 7 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 27, but will try to catch it on tape later in the day.  Mention of the world's biggest tackle football game elicits little in the way of excitement from the Chinese, but mention Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, and every man, women and child perks up, giving the impression that every one China's 1.3 billion people knows and loves the 7-foot-5 national treasure and will be watching the NBA All-Star game, to which Yao was just voted as a starter.  Of the 20 U.S. players, 16 picked the Raiders while just four went with the Buccaneers.  Said Bay Area native Lorrie Fair: "Raiders, baby!"  Said Tiffeny Milbrett: "Raiders by 27.  Is that a lot?"  Said defender Jenny Benson: "What's the spread?"

Like many high-end hotels in China, the USA's hotel in Yiwu featured a small bowling alley on the ground floor and about 15 players and staff held an impromptu bowling tournament on the evening before the Norway match.  U.S. head coach April Heinrichs was in "the zone," rolling a career-high 171 to lead her team to an 11-pin victory in the second match.  Brandi Chastain picked up the top score for a player in the first match, leading her team to victory, and claimed that she once owned a 200-average while a member of a Sunday bowling league.  Heather O'Reilly, a high school senior who is taking a bowling class at East Brunswick High School (N.J.), and was demanding "extra-credit" for the night's activities, at first showed she was perhaps not paying too much attention in class, but then finally notched her first strike at the end of her second game.

The U.S. players were amused to find out that all time in China is set to Beijing time, no matter where you are in the country, the equivalent to Los Angeles always being on the same time as Washington, D.C.

American referee Sandra Hunt handled the China vs. Germany game in Yiwu, her first match of the Four Nations Tournament, and did a fine job in a game that was played at tremendous pace, and in a raucous atmosphere befitting a Women's World Cup match.

The number of substitutions allowed in Four Nations matches was changed from three to five before the start of the tournament.  U.S. head coach April Heinrichs used all five of her subs against Norway, sending on Jena Kluegel, Jenny Benson, Heather O'Reilly, Shannon MacMillan and Devvyn Hawkins.

U.S. defender Jenny Benson got to celebrate her "golden" birthday twice, turning 25 on January 25, first when it turned the 25th in China and was serenaded with "Happy Birthday" at breakfast by her teammates (a cake followed that evening), then back in the USA hours later when her twin brother rolled the 'ole odometer forward and she called her family back in California.

China's roster features six players who played in the WUSA last season: Zhang Ouying and Fan Yunjie (San Diego Spirit), Bai Jie and Pu Wei (Washington Freedom), Zhao Lihong (Philadelphia Charge) and Sun Wen (Atlanta Beat).  All six started the match against Germany.


Defender Brandi Chastain on facing China in front of a massive crowd at the Wuhan Sports Center Stadium.
"This will be one of the biggest games of the year as far as preparation for the Women's World Cup.  To play China in China in front of that kind of crowd will be invaluable for our development as a team.  There is nowhere else you can simulate this kind of game, against one of the best teams in the world, with all of their fans cheering against us."

Walt Fawcett, husband of Joy Fawcett, on why they will have no problem finding room in their baggage to pack the new items they have purchased while shopping in China with their three young daughters, including year-and-half-old Madi.

"We came over here with a lot of diapers."