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Q & A with Grant Wahl:
China's offense is its best defense

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Posted: Friday July 09, 1999 01:19 PM

On July 10, the U.S. and China will square off in the Women's World Cup final predicted by nearly everyone -- including Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl, the staff writer covering the tournament for the magazine. caught up with Wahl, who pointed out the players to watch on both sides and explained why China has been so dominant while the U.S. has been winning less convincingly. The top two teams in just about everyone's estimation have made it to the final. The U.S., though undefeated, has not dominated like China has. What is slowing down the Americans?

Grant Wahl: Here's what's interesting, if you compare the roads taken to the final by the U.S. and China, the U.S. has had it much easier as far as opponents faced. In the semifinal, China had to play Norway -- generally regarded as one of the top teams in the world -- and China blew them out. The U.S. outscored opponents 13-1 in the opening round. In the two games since: 5-2.

Defense will also be a key factor. If you look back to the first round, Mia Hamm wasn't frustrated by Denmark and it didn't do anything extra against her, neither did Nigeria. Since the first round, opponents, Germany and Brazil, have been putting one and two defenders on Hamm and it's been difficult for her. Hamm has been marked out of the last two games -- especially against Germany -- because the defenses have been stronger in the elimination rounds. Does the offense begin and end with Hamm?

Wahl: No. But I will say this about Hamm: she was the Player of the Game in the first two U.S. matches of the tournament. Since then, she has not been -- and other players have been filling in for her a bit. But the offense doesn't start or stop with her. Michelle Akers has had the best tournament of anyone on the U.S. team. In the semifinal, she marked Brazil's best scorer, Sissi , out of the game on defense, and had the key play on the insurance goal when she headed U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry 's goal kick directly to Hamm on a dead run. Hamm drew the penalty kick, but guess who took it and made it? Akers. She's been everywhere, getting knocked around more than any other U.S. player. She had to leave the Brazil game twice, but came right back out each time, seemingly saying This Chronic Fatigue Syndrome isn't going to bother me , and she ends up being the Player of the Game. It's amazing. But does the U.S. need a Mia Hamm goal or two to beat China?

Wahl: It's not so much a goal thing. Hamm just needs to be more dominant up front. I'm not saying she's playing poorly up there, but she started doing some things in the second half of the Brazil game that she needs to continue to do against China: be an offensive presence, be a scoring threat, make those great cuts to the goal. Hamm needs to be involved, and her teammates, of course, need to make sure they get her involved. In a sport where you have 11 players out there, it's up to the others to get the ball to Hamm. Once she gets it, she can do her thing. Hamm doesn't have to score three goals against China, but she needs to be involved. What do you take from the U.S. winning games without blowing out teams?

Wahl: What the U.S. has done over the last couple of games -- which has been impressive -- is to take some of the frustration they're feeling and find a way to work around it. The balance on the U.S. team is really incredible. Look at how many U.S. players have scored in this tournament. If you had told me before the World Cup that every field player except defenders Carla Overbeck and Kate Sobrero would knock one in the net, I would have said you're kidding, but that's what has happened.

No U.S. player has more than three goals ( Tiffeny Millbrett ) -- and Hamm only has two. Sun Wen of China is co-leading the tournament with seven. One thing that hasn't been commented on too much about this U.S. team is how well it's responded to teams marking Hamm out of the game. The U.S. has done an amazing job being a balanced team that doesn't allow opponents to focus on just one player. Who would you say is most responsible for the U.S. showing resolve as a team?

Wahl: Akers, and, if you look at my story in this week's Sports Illustrated, you'll see why the nod also goes to Scurry. As the tournament moves on, goalkeepers become more and more important because teams are more evenly matched and there are fewer scoring chances. One mistake or one save by a goalie can become huge. In the Brazil game, Brazilian goalkeeper Maravilha made a pretty horrible mistake by spoon-feeding a U.S. cross to Cindy Parlow early on that led to a U.S. goal. On the other side, Scurry really came up big, making three or four wonderful saves when the U.S. defense had been beaten.

There's also forward Shannon MacMillan . Whenever she comes into the game, the offense picks up. In the past I've criticized U.S. coach Tony DiCicco for not starting her, but more and more I'm starting to agree with Tony. Maybe it is best to bring MacMillan off the bench because there's no other player who can bring that spark to the team -- which has become really important What are your impressions of China and why have they been so effective in this World Cup?

Wahl: They're pretty fearless right now in the way they are playing and that always translates into good soccer. They've beaten some good teams. When you beat Norway 5-0 and hand them the worst defeat they've ever had -- and you do it in a World Cup semifinal -- it's pretty impressive. China easily has put on the most dominant performance in the tournament. They are the fastest team in the world. They distribute the ball really well and are very organized on offense. They use a lot of movement away from the ball, more so than any other team I've seen. It's Princeton basketball in a way, because China is always trying to make runs away from the ball. As a defender, you've got to be aware of that because you can get back-doored pretty easily with these guys. One pass will lead to another pass and all of a sudden they're in front of the goal. They're pretty hard to handle that way. The U.S. is going to have a hard time, especially when you consider that the U.S. defense has not had a particularly great tournament. Who are some of the key players China looks to for offense?

Wahl: Forward Sun Wen, a great finisher, is pretty experienced. Akers is probably going to be marking her -- just as she marked Sissi -- and it's going to be up to Akers to slow her down. Other than that, China has a great midfield in general. Liu Ailing kind of organizes the distribution. She's the hub for all China's runs out on the sides. She'll make some really good decisions to get the ball out to the right person making the run and create some offense. With nearly a week between the semifinals and the final, how will the teams spend their off-days?

Wahl: They're going to spend the week training, but more than anything they'll be recuperating. It's difficult for the U.S. to fly cross-country to play the semis on just one day of rest after the quarterfinals. China has made four cross-country trips already and that hasn't seemed to stop them, which is pretty amazing. Both teams will have a lot of time to recuperate, which I think will be reflected in the game. It's going to be less a battle of attrition than one in which two teams with full tanks really go after it. It's a smart bit of scheduling by FIFA for that reason, and also because the hype increases as the week goes on. China's been very good against the U.S. this year, how motivated will the U.S. be?

Wahl: China has beaten the U.S. twice in three games this year. The U.S.'s only win came at the end of extra time in Hershey, Pa. on April 22. China's had the upper hand lately, but the U.S. responds very well to challenges. If you go back to 1996 Olympic semifinals when the U.S. played Norway -- the team that had knocked the Americans out of the Women's World Cup in 1995 -- the U.S. came into that game looking for revenge. And they got it. I can see the U.S. coming out against China with greater desire than they have for any other game in this tournament. Many of us heard Norway's coach, Per-Mathias Hogmo, state that China should be the favorite going into the final, do you agree?

Wahl: I think the favorite coming into the final has to be China. Whether China's going to win is a different matter. It's going to be a great game. I don't see either team shying away from attacking. Obviously, after scoring five goals in a semifinal, China is not going to be timid and the U.S. has never thought about crawling into a shell.

The final matchup has been billed as if the U.S. should be scared of China, but if there's one thing about this U.S. team that's stood out for me, it's that they do what it takes to win and they are really, really tough women -- every one of them. They've met every challenge thrown their way and overcome a lot of pressure to get to the final of this tournament.

I don't see them stopping at just getting to the final. I think you're looking at a 3-2 U.S. win.

Related information
Wahl's U.S.-China breakdown
Wahl's WWC Mailbag: U.S. should be on the defensive
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