Monday, April 23, 2007
U.S. women face Group of Death scenario again
On the bright side for the United States, none of the teams drawn against it in Group B for the Women's World Cup will have the element of surprise on its side.
Facing Sweden, North Korea and Nigeria, the same three teams it faced four years ago in the group stage of the previous World Cup, leaves the United States with the toughest draw of any of the tournament favorites. But as much as singling out a so-called Group of Death has become a staple in seemingly every major international tournament, the anguished howls of incredulity emanating from Sunday's draw in China seemed slightly misplaced. It could have been much better, but it could have been worse. North Korea is always a wild card given the infrequency with which the team travels abroad for major international competitions (although coach Greg Ryan noted that assistant coach Phil Wheddon had been scouting at the most recent Asian Games, which were won by North Korea). The program's enigmatic nature turned out to be a positive for the United States four years ago, when the North Koreans showed little in North America after an opening win against Nigeria, surrendering four goals without scoring in losses against Sweden (1-0) and the United States (3-0). But after North Korea's strong performance in recent years, and with the added bonus of playing in a neighboring country where a secretive team from a Communist country won't be much of an oddity, Ryan views it as a serious soccer threat, even going so far as to knock the host nation down a peg in the pecking order of Asian powers. "I think North Korea is the best team in Asia over the past few years," Ryan told U.S. Soccer's Web site. "I've watched them many times in Olympic qualification and in the 2003 qualification for the World Cup and I think there is no doubt that they are the best team in Asia and we've certainly drawn the strongest group. I think we've drawn the best teams from every pot into our group." As much as Sweden, the second-place finisher in 2003 despite losing to the United States in group play, has pushed the Americans in recent years, it's a team that is very much a known commodity. A coach who stresses defense first and foremost, Ryan has plenty of time to figure out what, if anything more than luck, has helped the Swedes score multiple goals against the United States twice in the past 12 months (no other team has scored multiple goals against the Americans since Ryan took over in 2005). And although Sweden is clearly a championship-caliber team with forward Hannah Ljungberg in the lineup, her health has rarely been a given in recent years. "They have two of the best strikers in the world," Ryan said. "They have a great combination with [Victoria] Svensson, who is quick and good off the dribble, has great vision and is a great all-around player, and Ljungberg, who is just a great player running in behind defenses and finishing goals. Now you've added a young player, Lotta Schelin, who can take players down the flank. They are just a very dynamic team." The praise of Sweden is entirely justified, and the Scandinavian power does represent a significant hurdle as the United States looks to finish first and delay a potential showdown with Germany until the final. But would breathing be that much easier if the United States had drawn Brazil or Norway instead of Sweden? And though much of the focus in the aftermath of the draw is on each team's first three games, the road for the United States doesn't look entirely unattractive should it survive and finish first in the group. Assuming form holds, the first-place finisher in Group B would face either Japan or Argentina in the most mismatched of the four theoretical quarterfinals. By following that route, the United States also would face someone other than Germany -- likely China, Canada or Norway -- in the semifinals. Perhaps the biggest blow dealt to the United States by being placed in Group B wasn't the opposition as much as the obstacles to playing them. Just as China endured on its march to the final game in 1999 (hitting San Jose, Portland and New Jersey in eight days in group play before moving on to a San Jose-Boston-Los Angeles trek in the knockout stage), the Americans and their Group B compatriots face the roughest road trips between the widely separated cities of Chengdu, Shanghai and Tianjin. The truth is that rating a draw is really only useful as a way to pass time until the games actually begin. For the next few months, Germany will hear all about how it got off light with Argentina, England and Japan in Group A. But what if Argentina really is the emerging threat that knocked off Brazil for the first time ever to win South American qualifying? And what if Japan, playing close to home, plays up to its potential? Or what of Group C, where Canada and Norway could be challenged by Australia? It's the right of the supporters of the team that earns the toughest draw to complain about the process, and the United States clearly earned that distinction this time around. But the American side faces its toughest road to a World Cup title not because of how the draw unfolded on Sunday but because of how women's soccer at the international level has improved in the past four years. Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.