CHENGDU, China -- As the United States prepares to face North Korea in its World Cup opener, the American team has seen more of the North Korean landscape than it has of the isolated nation's reclusive soccer team since the two sides last met four years ago.
On a trip to South Korea last fall for the Peace Queen Cup, members of the American team made a sightseeing stop at the Korean DMZ, posing for photos at the most heavily-armed border in the world.
As is usually the case, the North Korean women's soccer team was nowhere to be seen.
Ranked fifth in the world in the most recent FIFA rankings, making it one of three top-five teams in Group B, North Korea represents a mystery for the United States on Tuesday (5 a.m. ET, ESPN2).
North Korea almost never ventures outside Asia for games, and rarely leaves its own borders for anything less than major regional competitions like the Asian Cup. They have been no more outgoing here. Unlike Group B peers Sweden, Nigeria and the United States, all of North Korea's practices in Chengdu, save a final mandatory open session, have been closed to the media, and players and coaches have been unavailable.
The two sides have played only twice before -- in each of the past two World Cups, with the Americans winning decisively both times. Much like this year, North Korea entered the 2003 World Cup with an air of mystery and was a popular sleeper pick. Instead, it beat only Nigeria and exited the tournament after a lackluster showing.
So aside from an opportunity to play on more geographically friendly footing (although Chengdu is as far from North Korea as it's possible to get in this World Cup), why are the teams here lavishing praise on the North Koreans?
"If you like football, it's a very nice team to look at," Sweden coach Thomas Dennerby said. "They play, in my opinion, beautiful football."
With an average age of 22 years and five months, North Korea shares the title of youngest team in the field with Argentina. But this youth movement has a record of success, including arguably the national program's most impressive international result in winning last year's U-20 World Championships in Russia (the first major international title for any Asian side). In that tournament, while the United States finished a disappointing fourth, the North Koreans won all five of their games, scored 13 goals and allowed just one, and capped off the run with a 5-0 thrashing of rival China in the championship match.
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Six players from that team are listed on North Korea's World Cup roster, which also includes three 15-year-old players who were not part of the U-20 squad.
"North Korea is a fantastic team, by far one of the top five teams in the world," Abby Wambach said. "We have been doing a lot of scouting – [head coach] Greg [Ryan] and the coaching staff have flown all over the world to figure out what systems they play and what they're going to come with."
Ryan and his staff may be as familiar with North Korea as anyone in the soccer world, having scouted them as extensively as possible the past two years. On the rare occasions the North Koreans ventured abroad, an American coach, whether Ryan, goalkeepers coach Phil Weddon or assistant Billy McNicol was usually in attendance to take notes and collect video.
Ryan's biggest concerns appear to be North Korea's speed and technical ability -- he has compared them with the Chinese team that pushed the United States to the limit in 1999.
The American delegation arrived in Chengdu having been told the field was abnormally wide, almost 82 yards, but measurements revealed something had been lost in translation and the field is a standard width. Had that been the case, it might have altered Ryan's thinking as to how to arrange his lineup against an aggressive team like North Korea.
Throughout his tenure, Ryan has relied primarily on a 4-3-3 formation. Most often that meant either Lindsay Tarpley or Heather O'Reilly started as the third forward alongside Wambach and Kristine Lilly, while the other came off the bench. But in recent weeks, mostly under the guise of experimenting with alternate formations that could be employed to counter specific scenarios, he has started both O'Reilly and Tarpley alongside Wambach and Lilly, including an aggressive 4-2-4 against New Zealand on Aug. 12 and what looked at times more like a traditional 4-4-2 against Finland on Aug. 25.
O'Reilly and Tarpley turned a few heads with the chemistry they displayed during both recent games, especially the offensive chances they created after Wambach left the Finland game with a toe injury.
"It's exciting to see them play together," Wambach said. "We've been playing in a formation that has allowed them to play on the field together at the same time for maybe the first time in their careers on the full [national] team. It's exciting to see the stuff they're bringing to the table. Heather O'Reilly and Lindsay Tarpley, they're going to be important people and important players on the field for us this World Cup."
With Shannon Boxx and Lori Chalupny likely to start in midfield no matter the formation, Carli Lloyd, who emerged as an offensive force in her own right with seven goals this year, would be the odd player out if Ryan elected to keep both O'Reilly and Tarpley in the starting lineup against North Korea. But although the two teamed up during a few scrimmages in China, Lloyd and O'Reilly lined up with what otherwise looked like a projected starting 11 as drills got underway on Sunday.
"Yes," was all Ryan chuckled when asked if he already knew in his mind which 11 players would be on the field to start the game against North Korea.
He then conceded that the players involved in the battle for those spots "pretty much" knew who would be in the starting lineup for the opener.
Sweden and Nigeria meet in Group B's other opening game in Chengdu.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.