U.S. women face Brazil minus Marta

June 22, 2007
By Graham Hays

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- At a ceremony near Chinatown in the middle of Manhattan on Thursday afternoon, the United States women's soccer team unveiled new uniforms for the their march to the World Cup this fall. That the shiny new jerseys are unmistakably and ostentatiously gold is a not so subtle reminder that the objectives of this year's team differ little from those of the teams that won the 1991 and 1999 World Cup titles and the program that reigned throughout the intervening years as the standard of excellence in women's soccer.

WireImage / MPSIn the absence of Marta, Cristiane will pick up the slack for Brazil.

On Saturday evening at Giants Stadium, with the Midtown skyline hovering on the horizon, this current group of Americans will encounter a reminder of where their journey to China truly began. As Saturday's match, will mark the first time the U.S. team has played Brazil (5 p.m. ET, ESPN2) since the gold-medal match of the 2004 Olympics.

In that previous meeting, in Athens, April Heinrichs' starting lineup still included Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett and Brandi Chastain. It was goals from Abby Wambach and Lindsay Tarpley, however, that sent the national program's greatest generation out with a 2-1 win and a trip to the top step of the podium in their final major international competition.

For relative newcomers like Tarpley and Heather O'Reilly, who came on as a substitute after regulation, and holdovers like Wambach, Shannon Boxx and Cat Whitehill, the experience on the field in that game and in the Olympics overall offered a glimpse of what the future held.

"I think it's pivotal," Wambach said. "Not just for myself and Tarpley, who scored in the game, but I think it was pivotal for the rest of the girls coming up and the ones that were still there who were going to keep on going to know that we are our own team. This team will continue without the experience, without the retired players. It was a pivotal moment and a pivotal time for this team. And what we've done from then on has been amazing. It's shown us that we can do it."

Not that it came easy on that day. Brazil, which finished third in the 1999 World Cup, pushed the United States to the limit in Athens before Wambach's goal in overtime clinched the gold medal. With the added perspective of Germany's win in the 2003 World Cup and an uncertain future for the United States, the Brazilians appeared poised to stake their own claim to women's soccer supremacy, just as they had decades earlier on the men's side.

Although gold from a game that many felt they controlled likely wouldn't have made a significant difference, silver certainly wasn't powerful enough to override longstanding cultural traditions in a South American nation where it was technically illegal (although lightly enforced) for girls to play soccer until 1981.

Without the requisite funding and support, Brazil's national program was largely dormant after the Olympics. Some of the country's best female players moved on to successful professional careers in Europe, but Brazil itself resurfaced only last fall for World Cup qualifying, when the team qualified for China but dropped a 2-0 decision against regional rival Argentina. Brazil's No. 8 position in the most-recent FIFA rankings is hardly a true reflection of the team's. Instead, that number seems to be a balance of Brazil's top-five potential and its mid-teens organization.

Those factors seem to indicate that the United States will get surely a challenge on Saturday, exactly how polished a challenge it will be is more difficult to pin down.

"I expect technical, expect a lot of passing, a lot of touches on the ball -- crafty, creative," Wambach said. "I don't expect them to play direct, by any stretch. I expect them to get a lot of numbers around the ball and to play a style that is very different from ours."

Brazil will be without Marta, the 2006 FIFA Player of the Year, because of the striker's professional obligations to her Swedish club team. But unlike some international sides, the Brazilians do have a certain degree of depth, especially up front.

"They're still a great team, because Cristiane and Katia are so good," coach Greg Ryan said. "In the Olympics, Marta and Cristiane were really dominant and Katia was coming off an injury. Now you basically replace Marta with Katia, who is a handful as a different type of player. But I think if they can get all three of those kids on the park together, they're going to be very strong."

Last week was supposed to be the game in which China, under its new coaching regime, broke out of the bunker so many teams employ against the United States and pushed the Americans. It didn't happen, and Ryan's team eventually wore down the organized Chinese on the strength of two Wambach goals in the second half. But the Brazilians appear to have neither the requisite training time nor the inclination to sit back and strategically defend, potentially giving the United States a rare and valuable opportunity to have its own weaknesses probed in a game with no long-term consequences.

"They're very skillful, hard to dispossess on the ball," Ryan said. "Two extremely fast and gifted strikers in Katia and Cristiane, Cristiane left-footed and Katia-right footed -- two if the best in the world. So that's going to pose some real problems for us. A great midfield in possession with Daniela, Formiga and Renata Costa, and then a lot of young players. I think they've got a lot from the U-20 side that did well over in Russia [at the U-20 World Championships last fall]. It's going to be interesting. They're under a new coach, and it's still Brazilian soccer but a little bit different from Rene Simoes, who did such a great job with the team in the Olympics."

Half a world away from the site of this year's World Cup and nearly as far away from the site of the last major international tournament, the United States and Brazil will renew what once looked like, and what could still be, a rivalry between the two nations best suited to carry women's soccer through its next evolution.

"I was definitely a young player in the Olympics," Tarpley said. "Everything was new for me, so I embraced the opportunity and took it as a huge learning experience. It definitely helped me as a person and as a player, being in those situations. Now I feel much more confident and I'm trying to be more of a leader and let my personality emerge."

Three years after the game in the Olympics, it seems everything and nothing at all has changed as a promising Brazilian side squares off against an established American side.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.