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Q & A with Grant Wahl

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Posted: Tuesday June 22, 1999 05:59 PM

With the first weekend of the Women's World Cup in the books, CNN/ caught up with Sports Illustrated staff writer Grant Wahl, who's covering the tournament for the magazine. Wahl quickly looked back at the U.S. women's 3-0 win over Denmark, handicapped a few of the upcoming marquee matchups and explained why the U.S. is vulnerable against Nigeria.

CNN/ The U.S. women put on quite a show last Saturday and broke a record for crowd size. What was the atmosphere at Giants Stadium for the game against Denmark?

Grant Wahl: There were all these little girls with face paint and all wearing Mia Hamm jerseys it seemed. It wasn't your typical New York soccer crowd at all. I saw some cops sitting around -- they had nothing to do in this crowd of almost 80,000. My guess is you have more police problems for a Metrostars game of 12,000 people than you do at a game like this. It was a good crowd, definitely into the game. You could tell they were there for the soccer, that's what the players said afterward. Unlike the Olympics where they got the big crowds, these people were there for the soccer, not because they wanted to go to the Olympics. It was a soccer event.

CNN/ Certainly the number of people watching made headlines, but was there anything that struck you about the game or the U.S. performance?

Wahl: What most impressed me was, that given the ridiculous expectations that Mia Hamm has, to score every game and to be the face of this tournament, she came out and scored. She was the first person to score and she did it with a great move in the box with someone on her. That is so difficult to do -- Ronaldo couldn't do it last year with the great expectations he had, and she was able to come out and do that in her first game.

The team didn't play their best game ever, by any means. Their defense is pretty slow. They actually gave up a couple of decent chances to Denmark early on but after about 20 minutes they settled down and played pretty well -- good attacking soccer.

CNN/ Is that slow defensive unit something to worry about for the U.S. women?

Wahl: Yes. The next game Thursday night against Nigeria, for example, they're really fast and they have several fast forwards. If the U.S. has one big weakness I think it's slow defense. They can be beat -- the defenders, that is. That could be a real problem on Thursday. I can see Nigeria scoring a goal on the U.S. and I don't think you can say that about the other teams in the group.

CNN/ Is this a tournament that lends itself to upsets?

Wahl: Soccer's a weird game, there hasn't been an upset victory yet, but Ghana tied Australia. Everyone thought Ghana had no chance to do anything in this tournament. But you've never seen a lot these teams -- North Korea, Nigeria -- not just the journalists, but some of the U.S. players have never seen these teams. That's what makes it cool about it being a World Cup, you get all these teams from all these random countries here at once and some of them are actually pretty good.

The teams are not used to playing before these kinds of crowds -- even the small crowds of 14,000. They're used to being able to hear everyone on the field, hearing the ball being struck and now it's like they're playing and they're almost deaf. There's something to that. You might see one or two surprises get out of the first round, but it's still three games. So if a team like Germany -- which had a kind of a disappointing tie against Italy -- starts slow, I think they have plenty of time to get themselves together.

CNN/SI/.com: What's next for the U.S. women?

Wahl: Thursday night in Chicago, they're going to have a sellout -- 65,000 on a weeknight, which I think is pretty impressive. That will be an interesting game. The U.S. has never played Nigeria, never played an African team in the World Cup and they don't know anything about them, though they probably watched Saturday's game. But they saw there are some really good players on that team who know how to attack, have some great moves and they have speed.

It could be, possibly, the toughest game of the group for the U.S. Nigeria's defense could be suspect, though. They had some trouble marking people and the U.S. is really good at exploiting advantages like that. I expect the U.S. will win the game, but it could be the toughest game of the first round for them.

CNN/ What about the near future of the other competitive teams in the tournament, like China?

Wahl: China plays Ghana Thursday in Portland. If Ghana could get at least a tie out of the game, that would be huge for them. But I doubt that's going to happen.

Brazil-Italy, before the U.S. game in Chicago, I guess would be a pretty big one. Italy played better than expected with the tie against Germany Sunday. And Brazil had arguably, or maybe inarguably, the best opening first game of anyone. They have some great scorers, but they'll be playing a team with a much better defense than Mexico this time.

That's the toughest group in the tournament -- you have Brazil and Germany in the same group with Italy. I think Brazil's going to win that group especially if they can win that game.

To send a question to Grant Wahl's mailbag click here, and check back each Wednesday to read his answers.

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