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Tuesday, January 15, 2008
ESPNsoccernet: January 17, 12:59 PM UK
Emphasis on youth for Four Nations tourney

Lindsey Dolich

2008 is already looking like the year of makeovers. With a little bit of cutting and fine-tuning, U.S. women's coach Pia Sundhage's roster for the Four Nations Tournament, being held Jan. 16-20 in Guangzhou, China, has placed an emphasis on youth.

With two babies on the way and five China-bound players 21-years old and younger, the team is truly embracing a precocious young generation. One player who won't be leading the youth movement is 36-year-old team captain Kristine Lilly, who recently announced her pregnancy and a yearlong sabbatical to focus on her family.

"I'm not closing any doors as far as soccer," said Lilly in a U.S. Soccer press announcement on Jan. 7. "I hope to play in the new league and if one day I get the chance to play for Pia, that would be fantastic. But for now, I'm focusing on becoming a mom for the first time and everything that goes with that experience."

Due in July, Lilly will not be playing in this summer's Olympics should the team qualify in April. As for Tina Ellertson, her second child due in April will round out the U.S. peewee team to four (along with Kate Markgraf and Christie Rampone, who each have a young child). Kate Markgraf and Aly Wagner were also left off the roster to recover from injuries, while Natasha Kai, recuperating from a bout with pneumonia, did not travel to Guangzhou.

Lilly passes along the captain's armband to another veteran and mother, Christie Rampone. Leading the team with 176 caps, Rampone is one of the most underrated players in the women's game. Her quiet strength on and off the field duly impressed Sundhage, who has expressed confidence that Rampone will lead the team with experience and poise.

Look for Sundhage to experiment with the lineup over the week. "The coaching staff will work on the players' decision-making to prepare the individual players and the team to come to understand and like playing more than one system," Sundhage said. "The mix with young players and experienced players is important, especially when the Olympics are just around the corner."

Of the 20 players Sundhage chose to travel to China, there are seven new additions to the 2007 World Cup roster. The talent is spread evenly throughout the lineup, reinforcing an already experienced defense. Goalkeeper Hope Solo is back, and will probably start in between the pipes with an improved outlook.

U.S. women's schedule
U.S. vs. Canada
Jan. 16
Guangdong Stadium, Guangzhou, China
Midnight ET

U.S. vs. Finland
Jan. 18
Guangdong Stadium, Guangzhou, China
3.30 a.m. ET

U.S. vs. China
Jan. 20
Guangdong Stadium, Guangzhou, China
3.30 a.m. ET

Briana Scurry, one of last of the "girls of the summer" crew remaining, will provide a steady hand. Cat Whitehill and Stephanie Cox (née Lopez), who both earned major minutes during the World Cup, will join Rampone on the back line. However, after the four-goal defeat to Brazil revealed some flaws, Sundhage has inserted three uncapped, but savvy backs into a defense due for a tune-up. Tobin Heath, the youngest player on the roster at 19 from powerhouse UNC, has previous experience with national team training camps and the U-20s. Becky Sauerbrunn, fresh off a standout senior season at Virginia will add depth. The third addition, Ali Krieger the ex-Penn State star, has spent time recently playing professionally in Germany with FFC Frankfurt, the same club that German legend Birgit Prinz plays for.

With a winning streak in the Four Nations Tournament going back to 2004, the U.S. has a lot to prove -- the last time it lost in the tournament was in 2003 against China when the team placed third -- to each other, and to their new coach.

The midfield returns with a vengeance, with five of the seven returning middies looking for redemption after an uneven performance in the 2007 FIFA World Cup. The addition of two of the brightest prospects to come around in the last few years could be the runaway story of the tournament, if both play up to their potential. Angie Woznuk (Portland) and Tina DiMartino (a senior from UCLA) are the country's finest collegiate attacking midfielders -- and they could not be more different.

Standing 5-foot-2, pintsized by U.S. women's standards, DiMartino has made a career standing head and shoulders above the rest. "I don't think there's another player quite like her in the women's game right now, " said Jillian Ellis, UCLA coach. "Her comfort on the ball, taking on players makes her unique. She's a tremendous dribbler and creative player." Woznuk is a deceptively smooth playmaker and a scoring threat, extremely capable of dictating the pace of the game.

On attack, Abby Wambach leads the offense, but she will need to step up with Lindsay Tarpley and Heather O'Reilly in the absence of playmaker Lilly. Sundhage has also added UCLA junior Lauren Cheney and Amy Rodriguez, from NCAA champion USC, to provide creativity and sound finishing. "Cheney has a great nose for the goal," said Ellis, who also remarked that the two strikers have a friendly history (despite playing on rival college teams).

With the extra energy and young exuberance, expect some inspired combination plays on the U.S. front with strong marksmanship. The midfield's productivity will be key for the U.S. to bring the pieces together, hinging on playing strong, quick possessions designed to draw out the opposition's defense.

Lindsey Dolich is a contributor for ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet.

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