After the U.S.'s
disappointing first-round exit at the recent World Cup, the attention of U.S.
Soccer has already shifted toward the new-look women's team, which is in the
midst of a six-month residency outside Los Angeles in preparation for the 2007
Women's World Cup in China. And while the purpose of its three-game exhibition
series this month is to develop chemistry among the many new players on the
roster--the Americans will look for their fifth straight win of 2006 when they
meet Canada this Sunday in Cary, N.C.--forward Abby Wambach can't help but take
a playful dig at her male counterparts. "We're trying to get a couple of
games under our belt," says Wambach, 26, cracking a wry smile, "and
give some of the American fans a good soccer team to watch." (Ouch,
At a time when
some countries have throttled down on their women's programs--2004 Olympic
silver-medalist Brazil, shamefully, hasn't played since falling to the U.S. in
the final in Athens-- U.S. Soccer is sinking more than $4 million into the team
this year. With the departures in '04 of stars Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brandi
Chastain and Joy Fawcett, there are more chances than ever for young players to
crack the lineup. "Usually new players are nervous and don't want the ball
half the time, but these young players have a look in their eyes that they want
to learn and do everything they can to help," says 35-year-old captain
Kristine Lilly, one of the few players remaining from the 1999 World Cup
second-year coach Greg Ryan, the fresh faces are making large contributions.
Goalkeeper Hope Solo, 24, has started 17 of the last 20 games, though she faces
a battle now that veteran Briana Scurry has returned after taking a year off.
Tina Frimpong, 24, brings unprecedented speed to the U.S. center back position.
In the defensive midfield Leslie Osborne, 23, is filling in for 29-year-old
Shannon Boxx, perhaps the U.S.'s most influential player, who'll miss the next
six to eight months after blowing out her right knee. Rising talent Carli
Lloyd, 24, has shown promise as an attacking midfielder. Up front, Heather
O'Reilly, 21, has taken over a starting spot, while tattooed supersub Natasha
Kai, 23, has four goals in her first seven games.
Not that Ryan has
had to start from scratch. Wambach, who scored the game-winning goal in the
Olympic final, remains the U.S.'s most feared player, a bone-crunching striker
who takes pleasure in dominating defenders. As for Lilly, the ageless wonder
holds the world record for national-team appearances (309), but that hasn't
kept her from winning the team's fitness tests and and scoring 10 goals over
the past two years. "I'm not ready to call it quits," says Lilly, who's
playing strictly as a forward these days in Ryan's aggressive 4-3-3 formation.
What do retirees like Hamm, Foudy and Fawcett think of her staying power?
"They can't believe I'm still doing it, and some days I can't either,"
Lilly says. "But I still enjoy playing."
And, of course,
winning. Since Ryan took over for April Heinrichs in early 2005, the U.S. has
gone 16-0-4 (including one penalty-kick loss that officially counts as a tie).
After being subjected to the ironfisted rule of Heinrichs, who would mandate
how many touches players could have on the ball, Wambach calls Ryan "more
of a players' coach. He's more willing for us to have creativity and take
risks." The result is an entertaining team that can give up goals but score
plenty of its own; witness the U.S.'s wild 3--2 win over Sweden on July 15, in
which the teams combined to score three times in the final five minutes.
Ryan, a former North American Soccer League defender, says his main objective
is to rebuild and win at the same time, and he's not afraid to be bold when
asked to handicap next year's World Cup. "I think we're the favorites,"
he says. "So far we've outplayed every international team we've faced, and
that includes pretty much all the top teams other than Brazil." Ryan and
his team have 13 months before they'll have to back up that talk in China, but
they'll be wise to remember: In women's soccer the rest of the world is