A monthly column about the State of U.S. Soccer that takes a hard look at everything from the performance of the U.S. National Teams to pro soccer in the good ‘ole U-S-of-A. If you’re looking for a viewpoint that you won’t see in a generic, nuts-and-bolts U.S. Soccer press release, you’ve come to the right place.
At long last, the hand has been dealt. The cards have been laid. The road lies ahead. There’s no going back now. And the cliches have just begun…
The Armchair Midfielder sits down with the results of the recent Final Draw and makes early picks as to which eight teams will advance to the all-important second round of the FIFA Women’s World Cup USA 2003. [Editor’s Note: This is the official name of the tournament. Anyone referring to it as the 2003 Women’s World Cup, 2003 WWC or any other variation will be subject to a firing squad by Shannon MacMillan at the next U.S. WNT training session.]
Group A – USA (A1), Sweden (A2), Nigeria (A3), North Korea (A4):
Wow. "Golden Girls" (Mia and Brandi, not Rue McLanahan and Estelle Getty), you’ve got your work cut out for you. While the group and order of teams that the U.S. must face looks eerily similar to that of Group A in ’99, save Sweden taking the place of Denmark, there’s one big difference: they’re a lot better than four years ago!!! Then again, so are we. Let’s look back, shall we? After shaking out the nerves in a 3-0 win over the Danes (who didn’t present half the challenge that Sweden will), don’t forget that the U.S. stumbled against Nigeria in the early going, giving up a goal in the opening minutes before roaring back for a 7-1 win. Then came North Korea and a score of 0-0 at halftime, which would have been scary if Tony DiCicco and the gang hadn’t already secured six points and were resting three starters. But of course, a goal from Mac and a Tisha Venturini running front flip later and – phew! – the U.S. won the group easily with an unblemished 3-0 record. But now four years later, the gaps in the women’s game has closed to the point where you can hardly swipe a First USA U.S. Soccer MasterCard through it (points from the sponsors!!! Woohoo!!!). The U.S. could have a difficult time pulling out these same opening round results against the #5 and #7-ranked teams in the world, even with another set of full stadiums behind them. The defending champs will need veterans like Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Joy Fawcett and Briana Scurry to be 100% healthy throughout the tournament, as well as have younger players like Aly Wagner and Cat Reddick to have a strong showing to claim the top spot in this aptly-title "Group of Death."
Predicted Order of Finish: USA, SWEDEN, North Korea, Nigeria.
Group B – Norway (B1), France (B2), Brazil (B3), South Korea (B4):
Almost as difficult as Group A, Group B must have #2-ranked Norway a little concerned, seeing how they have to face an almost identical challenge as the USA in tackling two Top 10 teams in its first three games. As third-place finishers at USA ’99 and Sydney 2000, Brazil will be as dangerous as ever, while European upstart France and high-scoring forward Marinette Pichon cannot be overlooked, despite the fact that the Norwegians handled them with relative ease with two wins in European Qualifying. South Korea is no slouch either, having tied North Korea and beaten Japan to finish third in Asian Qualifying. Although losing Pretinha to a recent ACL tear was a big blow to Brazil, the likes of WUSA standouts Katia and Daniela and quick-as-lightning forward Maicon should lead the Samba Queens to the top of the group. Of course, Norway has history on its side, as well as the return from retirement of two of their greatest players – goalkeeper Bente Nordby and forward Marianne Petterson, but their long ball style of play has produced diminishing returns since they grabbed the gold in Sydney in 2000. In the end, it will come down to the match between Brazil and Norway for the group title, with the CONMEBOL champs slipping by 2-1 in a bruising battle at RFK. Playing in their first WWC will be a great thrill for France, but it’s probably too much of a stretch to think that one player (Pichon) can carry them through to the elite eight.
Predicted Order of Finish: BRAZIL, NORWAY, France, South Korea.
Group C – Germany (C1), Canada (C2), Japan (C3), Argentina (C4):
You heard it here first: Canada will make it to the 2003 Women’s World Cup semifinal, where they’ll be tough to beat with the Pacific Northwest providing a "home-field-advantage-away-from-home" for the CONCACAF runner-up. Although they have had little success in the WWC, which is to blame for their misleading No. 12 ranking, they’ve come a long way under former Norway mastermind Even Pellerud. Recent results, which include a pair of 2-1 wins over Brazil up in the Great White North and a close overtime loss to the USA in the 2002 CONCACAF Women’s Gold Cup Final last November, suggest that they’re almost up there alongside the traditional women’s soccer world powers. All eyes will be on powerful forwards Christine Latham, Charmaine Hooper and Christine Sinclair, while stellar ‘keeper Karina LeBlanc roams the penalty box to shut down the opposition. While #3-ranked Germany gets the top seed in this group, they’ll be without retired midfielder Maren Meinert, a dazzling playmaker and the MVP of last month’s appropriately-themed "USA vs. the World" All-Star Game. That said, they still have Birgit Prinz and Conny Pohlers making things happen up front, Bettina Weigmann running the midfield, and defender Sandra Minnert shoring things up in the back, meaning they will have little trouble advancing. Exciting midfielder Homare Sawa and Japan, ranked #14 in the world, will happily concede the group’s "Just Happy to be Here" prize to 35th ranked Argentina.
Predicted Order of Finish: CANADA, GERMANY, Japan, Argentina.
Group D – China (D1), Ghana (D2), Russia (D3), Australia (D4):
You had to feel bad for the Chinese. First they had to bare the brunt of the mysterious S.A.R.S. epidemic, then as most feared, they lost the chance to take a well-deserved turn as host of the tournament. With that switch to the U.S. went perhaps China’s best chance to date of finally joining the USA and Norway as Women’s World Cup champions, something they’ve been so close to time and again. But having said that, after seeing the wonderfully easy draw they got, the general disappointment for their predicament has waned significantly. Let’s be real--none of the three other teams in Group D, which should be hereby know as the "Group of Dearth" (credit the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Mark Ziegler with coining the phrase. Definition: a scare supply; lacking), has a real chance of advancing ahead of the #4-ranked team in the world, who feature a still-dominant Sun Wen playing in her final World Cup alongside talents like forward Bai Jie and a handful of key players that put country ahead of club and skipped the current WUSA season. Given the group that they are in and the slightly easier road they have to the semi’s, it’s almost enough to still consider China the 2003 WWC favorite that they were before the change of venue. With their physicality and attacking mentality that they present, Russia is the only team that could be a problem, but look for China to post another 2-0 win as they did in ’99. The chance of either Australia or Ghana giving them a real test are slim, meaning that third place in the group will inevitably be a battle between the Black Queens and the waltzing Matildas. [Editor’s Note: It’s an entirely different group from those that posed in the revealing, look-at-us calendar from four years ago. If you still own that calendar, shame on you.]
Predicted Order of Finish: CHINA, RUSSIA, Australia, Ghana.
Table of Contents
1) Armchair Midfielder (Dissecting the 2003 WWC Final Draw)
2) In Threes (w/ WNT forward Abby Wambach)
3) Mark That Calendar (MNT vs. Costa Rica – July 26, 8 p.m. ET – Galavison)
4) Queries & Anecdotes (w/ MNT goalkeeper Kasey Keller)
5) FAN Point/Counterpoint (Who will win the 2003 CONCACAF Gold Cup?)
6) "You Don’t Know Jack (Marshall)" (U.S. Gold Cup Trivia)
***HOW'S OUR WRITING?***
We want feedback. No, really. Positive, negative, indifferent--we take all kinds. Reach us at: email@example.com.