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What's to be in 2003

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.

With 2002 standing as one of the most successful single years in U.S. National Team history, not to mention the most successful four-year cycle (1999-2002) since the National Teams program has grown to include as many as 10 different age levels, we look ahead at what 2003 could hold for the individual teams that collectively represent Team USA.

2002 was a big year for U.S. Soccer. It was breathtaking and historic. It restored faith in the sport and created legions of new fans. But oddly enough, with all of the tournaments and world championships that loom in 2003, this year could be an even more important year. From the Women’s National Team’s daunting challenge of defending the Women’s World Cup, to the Men’s National Team trying to prove that the 2002 Gold Cup and World Cup successes were no fluke, to the Under-20 and Under-17 Men’s National Teams trying to duplicate the full Men’s Team’s success at their respective FIFA World Youth Championships, 2003 represents a hugely important 12 months that could set the tone for the rest of the current four-year cycle that began on January 1.

U.S. Men’s National Team

Like any other sport, with success come expectations. Although not quite under the same pressure that often burdens the U.S. Women as the #1 team in the world, now that the U.S. Men won the regional title and finished eighth in the biggest event in the sport, it’s not unreasonable for fans and media alike to expect Bruce and the boys to maintain and perhaps even surpass that level as they look ahead at Germany 2006. After playing friendlies across the first half of the year, this summer will provide not one but two major tests upon which the new look U.S. team will be measured. They’ll have their work cut out for them at the 2003 Confederations Cup, with perhaps the best eight-team field in the tournament’s brief history heading to France from June 18-29. This time there will be no element of surprise surrounding the U.S. team and what results they might be able to deliver. That level of relative anonymity among the world’s best vanished with the 3-2 result over Portugal last June. The CONCACAF Gold Cup will also be a war, with Mexico looking to regain its place atop the confederation and Canada looking to shed its image as the region’s also-ran and reclaim the title it won in 2000. Unfortunately for Bruce, despite the landmark year and the benchmarks that were achieved in 2002, the clock resets in 2003 and we’re back to the beginning.

U.S. Women’s National Team

Talk about pressure--welcome to April Heinrichs’ world. The U.S. Women’s National Team is the defending world champion. Their official rallying cry for the last few years has been “Win Forever.” They have been beating up on teams for years, even decades. But that was then. Now with the team’s biggest stars battling Father Time and a gap that’s closing all across the globe at an alarming pace, April and the gals face perhaps the most difficult challenge that has confronted the U.S. Women in their 17-year history. Claiming the top prize in women’s soccer was tough enough with home crowds and an entire nation behind you. But now the battle shifts to the backyard of our biggest competitor in China with revenge undoubtedly on the host country’s mind. (Cue Micheal Buffer--“Let’s get ready to rrruummbblllllllllle!!!”) It will take supreme composure and ice in the veins of young U.S. stars like Cat Reddick and Aly Wagner, as well as legendary performances from the trio of Mia, Julie and Lil, to even get to the final, much less be the first team to claim back-to-back women’s championships.

U.S. Youth National Teams

Under-23 MNT: Sometimes the forgotten team among the other youth programs that compete in world championships every two years (U-20 MNT, U-17 MNT and now the U-19 WNT), the Olympic team is only about 18 months from their own personal World Cup in a little place called Athens, Greece. They get their first taste of a major international competition in August when they head to the Caribbean for the 2003 Pan American Games, where they will try to improve on a bronze medal at the ’99 games and a host of young MLS pups will try to cement their place on what will hopefully be an Olympic-bound squad come the summer of ’04.

Under-21 MNT: When will this team’s run of Nordic Cup titles end? Not any time soon, if the standouts from the 2002 U-19 world championship team have anything to say about it. Expect the likes of the appropriately hyped “Triple-Edged Sword” (forwards Heather O’Reilly, Lindsay Tarpley and Kelly Wilson), defender Jill Oakes and goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris to keep the trophies coming when the team heads to Denmark in late July (July 20-28).

Under-20 MNT: The success of this age level is often reflective of the state of college soccer, as most of the players that make up this team are tops in Div. I. Where the U-17 MNT has flourished across the last four-year cycle, the U-20s have underachieved. Typically a team that reaches the second round of the world championship, the current squad will take their turn trying to reach the quarters for the first time since 1993 or find their way to the semis for the first time since 1989.

Under-19 WNT: After winning the inaugural FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championship last September, the new class will begin preparations and search for the next group of difference makers like an O’Reilly, Tarpley or Wilson, much like the situation the U-17 MNT were in after Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Bobby Convey graduated upon helping the U.S. to fourth place at New Zealand ’99.

Under-17 MNT: Speaking of that ’99 team, every U-17 class thereafter will be measured by the success and standard that head coach John Ellinger and his talented crew set in that great run to the semifinals. After a disappointing world championship performance in 2001 in which they finished 15th out of 16 teams, young teens like Guillermo Gonzalez and Corey Ashe are looking to lead the U.S. to the second round and beyond when they head to Finland from August 13-30.

All in all, this could be one of the busiest years in U.S. Soccer history, so bookmark and fasten your seat belt.

Table of Contents
1) Armchair Midfielder (What's to be in 2003)
2) In Threes (w/ MNT goalkeeper Tim Howard)
3) D.J. for a Day (w/ U-20 MNT defender Chad Marshall)
4) Queries and Anecdotes (w/ WNT midfielder Angela Hucles)
5) Mark That Calendar (Back to Bidness…)
6) Superstar!!! (w/ MNT goalkeeper Brad Friedel)
7) FAN Point/Counterpoint (Reviews of "Our Way")
8) "You Don't Know Jack (Marshall)" (2002 WNT Trivia)

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