The U.S. women’s national soccer team is acutely aware of what’s at stake as it opens its World Cup Group C competition against North Korea on Tuesday in Dresden, Germany.
Though ranked No. 1 in the world, the ladies haven’t won the big one since their rousing victory over China at the Rose Bowl in 1999. And the expected bounce in popularity from Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brianna Scurry and the sports-bra-revealing Brandi Chastain never quite materialized past the collegiate level.
This World Cup represents a second chance. Only, the world has gotten a lot better, so the task of winning again will be even harder.
Take North Korea, for example. The teams drew 2-2 the last time they met in World Cup 2007. The North Koreans have struggled in three recent friendlies despite the presence of striker Jo Yun-Mi, voted the best player at the 2010 Asian Women’s Championship. But that’s nothing compared to coach Pia Sundhage’s squad, which needed a nerve-wracking, 1-0 playoff victory over Italy to become the competition’s final qualifier.
The U.S. needed a stoppage-time goal by substitute Lauren Cheney to beat Mexico 1-0 in its final friendly before departing to Germany.
Though the U.S. and Germany are the co-favorites, a talent-packed American team that includes Abby Wambach, Christine Rampone and star goalkeeper Hope Solo
needs to be careful in the early going.
“[North Korea] will be difficult because they’re something of an unknown quantity,” said striker Wambach, the third-leading scorer in U.S. history behind Hamm and the just-retired Kristine Lilly. “This time around, we can expect another close game.”
Colombia and Sweden, both capable of engineering an upset, also reside in Group C.
The U.S. is 2-0-1 lifetime against North Korea, having beaten it in 1999 and 2003. This time, Sundehage’s crew has the decided experience advantage, being the oldest team in the tournament, while North Korea is the youngest.
But with a 36-year-old captain Rampone anchoring the back line, 34-year-old Shannon Boxx at midfield and Wambach and reserve defender Heather Mitts both north of 30, it will be a challenge to match North Korea’s speed.