U.S. prepared for a physical clash with Brazil

September 24, 2007
(Archive)

SHANGHAI, China -- With a spot in the World Cup final on the line, soccer's old power and young challenger will collide when the United States and Brazil meet in Hangzhou (ESPN2, Thursday, 8 a.m. ET).

And before assuming that's just some kind of metaphor, consider that the American team's medical staff has already had to add a staple gun to its triage inventory.

GettyImages / Guang NiuThe U.S. will rely on the Abby Wambach-Kristine Lilly connection against Brazil.

Beautiful soccer? Thursday's game promises to be more like a back-alley brawl for survival.

Three years after the United States held off Brazil in a 2-1 overtime thriller to win Olympic gold in Athens, the two teams meet again in the latter stages of a major tournament. For the United States, which has won more World Cup and Olympic titles combined than any other country, the game offers a chance to return to a World Cup final for the first time in eight years and erase the sting of a semifinal loss against Germany four years ago in Portland. For Brazil, it's a chance to advance to a World Cup final for the first time and a chance for revenge against the team that denied the country's first major title in women's soccer.

After the United States surrendered two short-handed goals against North Korea in its World Cup group opener while waiting for the training staff to stitch up a large gash on Abby Wambach's head, team doctor Chris Amann made sure a staple gun was on hand for future personnel emergencies. Stephanie Lopez was the first unlucky benefactor, receiving five staples to close a cut on her head after getting kicked by England's Jill Scott during the team's quarterfinal win. The quick fix (Lopez also received three stitches after the game) did its job; she missed less than two minutes and England couldn't exploit its numerical advantage.

And those games were flag football compared to the rugby scrum that marks a typical encounter with Brazil.

"I watched the [Brazil-Australia quarterfinal], and it's just really evident that Brazil is a hard team, physically," Wambach said Monday with diplomatic aplomb.

U.S. women's schedule
U.S. vs. Brazil

Thursday

Hangzhou Dragon Stadium, Hangzhou, China

8 a.m. ET, ESPN2

The leading scorer for the United States in this World Cup (four goals), Wambach has recent firsthand experience of what she speaks. She scored a goal against Brazil in a 2-0 win for the United States at Giants Stadium in July, and while that victory against a side competing without star playmaker Marta may not have a great deal of relevance in assessing Thursday's semifinal, the 20 fouls and five yellow cards called against a Brazilian defense that battered Wambach and others throughout the game offer some insight into the way things may unfold in Hangzhou.

Despite cruising through its opener against overmatched New Zealand with just one foul, Brazil totaled 42 fouls and four yellow cards in its first four games, compared to 39 fouls and one yellow card for the United States, which came through a more competitive group and played twice in sloppy conditions.

Of course, there is also an artistic side to the team's aggression. The Brazilians are an increasingly popular pick to leave China with the championship precisely because, interspersed with the fouls, frustration and hard play, they have assembled as much individual offensive talent as any women's team in the world. Pick the top 10 goals of the tournament through the quarterfinals and at least half of them, arguably, are courtesy of the deep Brazilian arsenal that includes Marta, Cristiane, Daniela, Renata Costa, Formiga and Pretinha.

Stopping that free-flowing, quick-strike attack presents a different task than countering North Korea's technical precision or Sweden's size and strength on long balls.

"They're not quite as structured," Lopez said of Brazil. "But you still know their style -- that they want to get the ball on their foot and attack you and free up open players. So it's a little bit different, maybe tactically, structurally, but you still know physically kind of what they're going to bring at you."

Against Brazil in June, United States coach Greg Ryan used the same 3-4-3 formation that he employed against North Korea in the World Cup opener. If he does so again Thursday, it would mean pushing Lopez up from outside back to midfield, a place where the youngest player on the roster has at times looked less comfortable.

But more important than the specific formation may be Leslie Osborne's presence at the start of the game.

Osborne was an integral part of the team's wins in the two games in which she started, marking Victoria Svensson in a 2-0 win against Sweden and Kelly Smith in the 3-0 quarterfinal win against England. And while she said Monday she wasn't sure what her assignment would be against Brazil, it's difficult to envision a scenario in which she doesn't start and spend a lot of time staring down Marta.

Brazil's 21-year-old star has lived up to her billing in this World Cup. Tied with Norway's Ragnhild Gulbrandsen for the tournament lead with five goals, she is the cornerstone of her team's attack.

"She's kind of like Kelly [Smith], just in terms of fast, really good with the ball -- the ball is like glued to her foot," Leslie Osborne explained. "And not only does she play it, but she looks to get the ball back every single time. She's just involved, and they get her the ball and she just doesn't stop."

Osborne's explanation for how she manages to slow some of the best players in the world, and how she might attack the player considered by many to top that list, sounds simple enough. But she executes it as well as any American midfielder in recent memory.

"I just keep myself in between the ball and the player all the time, so when they try and play the ball to the player, I can head it away or I can get in the middle," Osborne said. "And then standing them up, and waiting for another teammate to help me double them or pressure them, and use my long legs to get in the way of their dribbling."

The United States is 19-1-2 in the all-time series against Brazil, including 5-0-0 in the World Cup and Olympics. The lone loss came a decade ago in Sao Paulo. Brazil has scored just 11 goals against the United States, including two in the past nine meetings.

But with Brazil's firepower in the early stages of this tournament fueling the sense that it's simply too talented a side to remain the best team never to win a major tournament, Thursday's game promises to be a clash (in every sense of the word) of equals.

"This kind of shows you who you are," Wambach said. "This is the tester that almost will define this team. And hopefully it's in a good way."

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