Work in Sports
U.S. women open with misleading shutout of Norway
MELBOURNE -- Let's get a couple of things straight. First, the U.S. couldn't have asked for a better result than Thursday's 2-0 opening-game win against Norway, the No. 2-ranked team in the world. The Americans needed three points against their biggest rival, and they got them. Suddenly the road to the medal round looks a lot easier, and the U.S. will be through to the semis with a victory on Sunday against China.
Mission No. 1 has been accomplished.
At the same time, I don't buy the spin that U.S. coach April Heinrichs put on the game afterward. "It was the best performance against the best opponent of any opening game in a world championship," she proclaimed.
Want the truth? This game was a snoozer. A pleasant enough snoozer for American fans, but a snoozer nonetheless.
Granted, Tiffeny Milbrett was a consistent attacking threat, and Mia Hamm provided a crucial insurance goal, but they weren't the top stories tonight.
The big question, rather, was this: What on earth happened to Norway? The Norwegians simply didn't show up. They might as well have been Iceland out there, for god's sake. Their back line was glacier-slow. Their midfielders lacked their usual toughness. Their forwards never posed a threat, on the ground or in the air.
It was the same type of no-show that Norway had in its 5-0 loss to China in the World Cup '99 semis. Counting their penalty-kick loss to Brazil in the WWC consolation game, the Norwegians have now lost three straight times in world championships. Which means if I'm a Norwegian fan, I'd be greeting coach Per-Mathias Høgmo with angry signs outside the team hotel in the morning. Signs like HØGMO MUST GO. Or NØ MØ' HØGMO. Or HØGMO=Ø. You get the point.
Sure, the U.S. had something to do with Norway's ineptitude. But the fact is, of all the Americans only Milbrett, Joy Fawcett and Kate Sobrero were at the very top of their games Thursday night. I'll be the first person to say that the Yanks have set awfully high standards for themselves. But they'll have to play better for 90 minutes against China (a 3-1 winner over Nigeria in its opener) on Sunday if they want to come away with a victory.
My player ratings for the game (from keeper out, 10 being the highest):
GK Siri Mullinix (5): Long outlet set up the first U.S. goal, but made multiple poor decisions by coming too far off her line. Her 34th minute takedown of Norway's Dagny Mellgren in the box wasn't whistled, but it should have been a penalty and could have been a red card.
D Brandi Chastain (5): Some nice work on the ball, but was beaten often 1-on-1 on the wing.
D Sobrero (7): Bottled up the middle against the best aerial team in the world.
D Fawcett (7): So comfortable in central defense that it's hard to remember it's not her natural position.
D Christie Pearce (6): Used her speed to work the offensive wing, but could still be more of a threat. Made an important clear after one of Mullinix's wild forays from goal.
M Kristine Lilly (7): Sweet through-ball assist on Hamm's goal. Nearly had another with an inventive chest pass to Milbrett, who hit the crossbar. Getting back on track after a summer-long slump.
M Julie Foudy (5): Not as involved in the offense as she has been of late. Decent defending in the middle.
M Lorrie Fair (6): Michelle who? Well, not yet, but Fair showed more 1-on-1 skill than expected and helped the U.S. control the midfield. Displayed confidence in her shot as well.
M Shannon MacMillan (5): Disappeared for long stretches. Needs to be a more consistent offensive threat to deserve the start over Cindy Parlow.
F Hamm (7): Clinically finished her one ideal scoring chance of the night. Needed 90 minutes to gain her tournament legs, though, and shouldn't have been pulled in the 70th minute.
F Milbrett (8): The most dangerous player on the field. Showed good concentration on her scoring run and (most surprisingly) an array of creative long-range shots with both feet. Plagued by bad luck: hit the woodwork three times.
F Cindy Parlow (5): Not given a chance to attack thanks to late-game, pack-it-in strategy.
Sports Illustrated staff writer Grant Wahl is covering the Olympic soccer
competition in Australia. Check back each day for his behind-the-scene reports.
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