U.S. goal is just to remain healthy

August 10, 2007
By Graham Hays
(Archive)

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bears open their preseason schedule on the road this weekend, but the brand of football on display Sunday at Soldier Field will have an August feel familiar to fans in the Windy City.

The United States faces New Zealand on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ESPN2) in one of its final warm-ups prior to the game which increasingly dominates the landscape for the American side, the Women's World Cup opener against North Korea in Chengdu, China, on Sept. 11.

WireImage / Andy MeadAbby Wambach, left, could add to her formidable goal tally against New Zealand.

The U.S. unbeaten streak under coach Greg Ryan, which now stands at 45 games by official FIFA standards, is unlikely to come to an end either on Sunday against New Zealand, which qualified for the World Cup but remains several rungs below the world's elite teams, or against Finland in the domestic finale on Aug. 25. But that isn't to say the Americans are incapable of sustaining a big loss or two in the next four weeks.

Just ask Sweden and Germany, two heavyweights currently performing roster triage.

Already unsure of what form star striker Hannah Ljungberg will be in come September, Sweden announced last month that 23-year-old forward Josefine Oqvist will miss the World Cup after tearing her ACL in league play. And little more than a week ago, Germany boss Silvia Neid said star veteran keeper Silke Rottenberg will be limited to a reserve role in China after tearing a calf muscle while recuperating from a torn ACL. That latter news came a few weeks after Neid had to drop midfielder Celia Okoyino da Mbabi from her plans due to injury.

For the United States, which already lost one projected starter when outside back Heather Mitts tore her ACL in a game against Canada in May, Sunday's most important performance may have little to do with the final outcome.

After missing the last two games against Norway and Japan with shoulder and knee injuries, Heather O'Reilly is back in action. During a scrimmage against a boys' team on Thursday afternoon at Toyota Park, the star of last year's NCAA champion North Carolina Tar Heels and veteran of 61 appearances for the national team notched an assist in the officiated and timed scrimmage.

Even as O'Reilly walked off the field after practice with an ice pack strapped to her left knee, Ryan sounded pleased with her status as he recounted the assist and suggested she might get a few minutes against New Zealand.

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• Team USA vs. New Zealand preview

"We've just got to get her back on form and get her back in the lineup, so she feels like she's a starter and ready to go," Ryan said. "She'll be ready for the World Cup."

Whether she starts as the third forward in China or comes off the bench behind Lindsay Tarpley, O'Reilly is a key figure as an experienced forward with 10 career goals and the potential for even better offensive production. During the same scrimmage in which she impressed, Ryan had midfielder Angela Hucles playing up top at times, underscoring both Hucles' versatility and a relative lack of depth with just five true forwards.

And no matter which players get on the field during Sunday's game, all who do play will likely feel it the next day. Like so many of the opponents during this year's send-off tour, New Zealand can be expected to match the Americans blow for blow on the physical side of things, even if the Kiwis can't match them shot for shot or pass for pass in skill.

Injury risk aside, Abby Wambach, the forward who absorbs more punishment than anyone, considers that excellent prep work for the upcoming challenge.

"The physicality of some of these teams -- Brazil, Canada -- you probably don't see them play that way against every other team, because they can probably outplay them," Abby Wambach said. "For us ... it's a positive, because the more looks that we have at different systems and different ways that people try to beat us, the better a team we're going to be."

The United States is 5-1-0 all time against New Zealand, the lone loss coming in 1987. The teams last met in 2004, playing twice in eight days, with the Americans winning 5-0 and 6-0, respectively.

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