Only in boxing.
—Luis Fernando Llosa
Why isn't the U.S. women's soccer team smiling?
Just a hunch, but maybe it's the outrageously unbalanced draw that left the defending gold medalist Americans facing their two toughest rivals in the first week. On Sept. 14, the day before opening ceremonies, the U.S. takes on 1995 World Cup champion Norway and three days later the Yanks meet China, which took the U.S. to penalty kicks in the memorable '99 World Cup final. The bottom line: To give host Australia a sweetheart draw in the other group, FIFA, the sport's governing body, ensured that one of the world's three best teams will get knocked out before the semifinals.
"It's the single most difficult and challenging draw FIFA has ever put out to a team that was ranked Number 1 in the world," says new U.S. coach April Heinrichs, who took over for Tony DiCicco in January. And? "And we love it. Every time somebody says there's something this team can't do, we prove them wrong."
Most of the gang from the World Cup '99 is back—Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Kristine Lilly and Julie Foudy included—for what will surely be the veterans' last major tournament together. Yet there's a decidedly different feel to this team. Heinrichs stunned the players initially by dropping five reserves from the World Cup roster, and in Sydney the team won't be able to count on three of the most important figures from the Cup team. Midfielder Michelle Akers retired from international competition last month because of a shoulder injury and chronic fatigue syndrome. Defensive organizer Carla Overbeck, discovered in April to have Graves' disease, is coming back from torn cartilage in her right knee and may not play any more than a reserve role. Goalkeeper Briana Scurry reported to the Olympic residency camp slowed by 20 extra pounds and various nagging injuries; she promptly lost her starting job to 22-year-old Siri Mullinix.
In other words, to win a third straight world championship the Americans will not only have to survive the mother of all schedules but also do it with a new goalkeeper and without the anchors of their defense and midfield. This much is certain for Team USA: The road to gold couldn't get much more difficult.
Any chance the Dream Team might have a nightmare?
U.S. Coach Rudy Tomjanovich can afford to sleep soundly, but he probably won't. "We're taking no one for granted," he says. "That's how you get beat. Every team we play is going to make me nervous." If Tomjanovich really needs something to fret about, he can start with his front line. With Shaquille O'Neal, who elected not to play, and Tim Duncan, who's recovering from knee surgery, not on hand, Alonzo Mourning is the Dream Team's only true center.
But Russia and Yugoslavia, the Americans' top challengers, aren't well equipped to attack the U.S. up front. The Russians' offense is built around high-scoring guards who aren't likely to be as potent when shadowed by defensive standouts Gary Payton and Jason Kidd. Yugoslavia will be without its best center, the Sacramento Kings' Vlade Divac, who passed up the Games to spend time with his family.
Divac is one of several European stars whose absence should make the going even easier for the Americans. Lithuanian big men Arvydas Sabonis and Zydrunas Ilgauskas are sidelined by foot injuries, and Russian captain and point guard Vasily Karasyov withdrew after complaining of a slow recovery from a tonsillectomy. Maybe Karasyov simply saw the futility of competing against the U.S. team, whose strengths include the athleticism of forward Kevin Garnett, the outside shooting of Allan Houston and the defense and playmaking of Kidd and Payton.