Whether it's Bob Dylan tunes or grass battles, coach Pia Sundhage likes to raise the stakes for the U.S. women's soccer team.
The latest of Sundhage's challenges looks like anything but a relaxing home stretch as the U.S. women prepare for next month's Olympics. In the team's final two matches before the Games begin, the U.S. will face Brazil -- first on Sunday in Commerce City, Colo. (ESPN, 4 p.m. ET) followed by Wednesday's meeting at Torero Stadium in San Diego, Calif.
Enduring one of the most grueling preparation schedules in team history -- which will number 22 games, more than 40,000 miles and seven countries by the end of July -- the U.S. women have doled out their share of punishment to opponents, mostly in visitors mode.
The Yanks even gave their coach a homecoming gift last week, defeating Sweden 1-0 (in Sweden) in a historical game that saw Sundhage -- the most celebrated Swedish female player and coach -- not only rooting for but also coaching the visiting team. The Americans also dismissed Norway 4-0 on their trip to Scandinavia, a successful rehearsal for when they'll face Norway again in Group G to open the Olympics on Aug. 6.
Meanwhile, Brazil posted a 1-1 draw against Canada on July 10 in Toronto and will be eagerly looking to bring a win back home as the Olympics approach.
In June, the United States defeated Brazil 1-0 in the 2008 Peace Queen Cup, but the Carinhas did not bring their full squad, so the Americans didn't achieve true redemption for their 4-0 loss to Brazil in the 2007 World Cup semifinals. But the narrow 1-0 win against Brazil's supporting roster might be a portent of the Rocky Mountains ahead for the United States' first game in Colorado. The U.S. Soccer Federation doesn't expect Marta to be present during Brazil's domestic tour, as she continues to fulfill European club duties.
|U.S. women's schedule|
U.S. vs. Brazil
Dick's Sporting Goods Park; Commerce City, Colo.
4 p.m. ET (ESPN, ESPN360.com)
"Marta is a great player, but she needs a team behind her, and she needs to play against a team, as well," Sundhage said. "You have to respect her quality. I think it's fun. That's what coaching is all about."
In any case, Marta is one puzzle the U.S. won't be solving anytime soon, but don't expect Sundhage to alter her game plan for the star forward. "If you look at our defenders, I think we will play well against Brazil, with or without Marta," the coach said. Even without Brazilian playmakers Marta, Cristiane and Daniela -- who most likely will be no-shows due to club obligations -- give credit to the U.S. coaching staff for selecting Brazil as the last pit stop for the Americans. The Carinhas' style of play embodies the X factor the U.S. will be up against in a diverse Group G with Japan, New Zealand and Norway. Brazil is extremely physical -- borderline dirty, really -- but also possesses speed, vertical dexterity, creative flair, superior ball control and an explosive yet capricious attack.
"[We will] continue what we are doing and emphasize finding the rhythm," Sundhage said in addressing her goals for the team. "We are trying to speed up the game and slow it down a bit and try different players off the bench, because the bench will be very important in the Olympics."
Riding the pine has never been this good for U.S. players, as the entire bench has made a concerted run for the 12th woman on the field. Nicole Barnhart has played remarkably well since her arthroscopic knee surgery, subbing in for Hope Solo in the second half against Sweden to make some crucial saves. In fact, Solo and Barnhart just might make the case for a true goalie tandem, as they seem to bring out the best in each other: they've led the team to a five-game shutout streak, the longest scoreless stretch since 2005.
The stifling defensive play is also the happy product of the back line's quartet of Heather Mitts, Christie Rampone, Kate Markgraf and Lori Chalupny, who have finally crystallized their communication and positioning as the back four. Rachel Buehler's growing confidence and experience also situates her as a terrific candidate to stand in for either of the flank defenders Mitts or Chalupny.
The midfield is operating like a well-oiled engine, as Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx seem to have worked out the kinks in the central transition, in part because Sundhage has given the pair free run of the field.
"I'm no longer considered a defensive midfielder, which is fun -- she's given the midfielders a chance to really learn to work together," Boxx said. "Carli and I are working great together. Heather O'Reilly and Lindsay Tarpley have done a great job. You've got Ang [Angela Hucles] coming and scoring big-time goals for us the end of games. The way we move in the midfield is going to be hard for other teams to play against us." Brazil's defense took a major blow in the previous friendly between the two teams; captain Aline went down early after tearing a knee ligament and will miss the Beijing Olympics. It will be up to defensive stalwarts Tania and Rosana to contain the 3.0 version of the triple-edged sword of Abby Wambach, Natasha Kai and Lindsay Tarpley. Each player has tallied double-digit goals for 2008, and in addition to the combined 33 goals the trifecta has scored, Carli Lloyd's seven goals adds a fourth dimension.
The upcoming games at home also will offer U.S. women's national team faithful to see history in the making. While it's not quite the home run record, Abby Wambach is pursuing her 100th goal, which would tie her with Tiffeny Milbrett. The prestigious mark would launch her into a legendary U.S. goal-scoring group that also includes Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Michelle Akers.
"I know I've been pretty consistent and that I have one of the highest goal-scoring rates in the history of the national team," Wambach said, "but I really believe if you were to go back and look at all the records of all those goals, I would say 99 percent of them have assists. What that shows you, what that shows me, is that I need my teammates to be successful on an individual basis." Abby said she just "wants to get the 100th over with," and maybe get a little sweet revenge against the team that notoriously shut her down last year.
Records aside, the U.S. women will face Brazil on Sunday, and they won't be looking in the rearview mirror this time.
Lindsey Dolich is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.