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Out from the shadows

U.S. readies for opener vs. mystery team North Korea

Posted: Monday September 10, 2007 10:28AM; Updated: Monday September 10, 2007 12:27PM
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North Korea is ranked No. 5 by FIFA, but little is known about a squad that is mostly isolated from the Western world.
North Korea is ranked No. 5 by FIFA, but little is known about a squad that is mostly isolated from the Western world.
Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Women's World Cup Schedule
Sept. 11 vs. N. Korea in Chengdu (5 a.m., ESPN2)
Sept. 14 vs. Sweden in Chengdu (5 a.m., ESPN)
Sept. 18 vs. Nigeria in Shanghai (8 a.m., ESPN)
* All times Eastern

CHENGDU, China -- The last time the U.S. played North Korea, in the group stage of the 2003 World Cup, the Yanks won handily, 3-0. So why is Tuesday's rematch -- the Cup opener for each side -- likely to be the most interesting game in the entire tournament?

In the past four years, the North Koreans have totally overhauled their team and transformed it into one that is ranked fifth in FIFA's notoriously unreliable world rankings. But they've managed to do it on the way, way down low. Outside of various Asian competitions, they don't play very often and, being North Korean and all, they're pretty much isolated from the Western world.

So the Koreans come into the World Cup like Ivan Drago or Daisuke Matsuzaka's gyroball: mysterious foreign commodities reputed to be awesome. Players and coaches from other teams and journalists tend to talk about the Koreans in hushed, almost reverential tones -- despite the fact that most have never seen them play in person.

They're unbelievably fast. Or, They might be the most technically proficient team in the tournament. Or, I hear they have one girl who can bend things with her mind.

"It's almost like they're a ghost at this point," says U.S. defender Kate Markgraf. "No one has seen them play, so it's easy for their reputation to keep growing and growing and growing."

The funny thing is, the North Koreans have picked up this rep without anyone hyping them up. Dice-K had a well-oiled p.r. machine (not to mention Scott Boras) behind him, and Drago had Brigitte Nielsen explaining in great scientific detail just how powerful his punches were.

Good luck finding out something about the Koreans, though. More than half of the North Korean team plays for a club called April 25. I tried to find out what the deal was with the team and the significance of the date, to absolutely no avail. Even Wikipedia was no help. The best it could tell me about soccer in North Korea is that in the men's league there are 10 teams that are "known of." That's some secrecy right there.

But the Korean women aren't an absolute mystery, of course. Occasionally they do have to emerge and play in an actual competition. So here's what we know:

They're fast. U.S. coach Greg Ryan has seen the Koreans play several times (either in person or on tape). "Watching them play is like speeding up your VCR," he says. Ryan marvels at how well they transition from offense to defense. He was explaining it to a group of Chinese journalists on Sunday, so he was speaking slowly and doing a lot of talking with his hands.

"Very fast to attack," he said, thrusting his hands forward. "Very fast to defend," he said, pulling them back. That could make for an interesting game; if the Koreans feel they've got their back covered and are willing to push forward, we could see some fireworks.

They're young. Of the 21 players on the Korean roster, only four are holdovers from the '03 World Cup. They've got three 15-year-olds, including one whose birthday was Sunday.

They've got game. Says Ryan, "They're skillful, creative and confident on the ball." Especially tough is Ri Kim-Suk, who plays up top but has a tendency to drop back into the midfield, where the Koreans like to try to outnumber their opponents.

They're frisky. After the Koreans had a late goal disallowed by an offside call in the semifinals of the Asian Cup last summer, they didn't exactly take it well. Here's how the Australian paper The Age put it: "North Korea's women's soccer players and officials have disgraced themselves in Adelaide by karate-kicking a referee and hurling bottles when a decision went against them." Pretty much tells you all you need to know.

But the U.S. isn't afraid to be chippy. Markgraf said that one thing the coaches have hammered home in practice in recent days is that the players need to stop hacking away at each other. They've been in China for about two weeks now, and they're understandably sick of only being able to play against their teammates. Says Markgraf, "We're really excited to go out and kick some people tomorrow."

Prediction: It's a tough game to call, because you never know if you should, in fact, believe the hype. On the one hand, Dice-K's gyroball turned out to be nothing special. On the other, Ivan Drago beat Apollo Creed to death.

Even if North Korea is as good as some think it is, I still don't see them winning. The U.S. doesn't have a discernable weakness. North Korea wants to flood the midfield? Fine. Ryan's got to feel pretty good knowing he's got Shannon Boxx and Leslie Osbourne, two of the best defensive midfielders anywhere, at his disposal. On top of that, the U.S. back four is as stout as you're going to see, and keeper Hope Solo seems pretty focused on the task at hand.

And, judging by the brief look we got at the Koreans as they trained on Sunday, they don't have the size to offset Abby Wambach. As good as the North Koreans are at getting back behind the ball, I think they're going to pay the price for being overaggressive.

I see the U.S. scoring early through Wambach, adding a second on the counterattack and then conceding a goal very late in a 2-1 win.