Potent U.S. team kicks off Cup bid

Women field speed, savvy in N.J. today

June 19, 1999|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

MARTINSVILLE, N.J. -- Briana Scurry remembers what she felt emerging from a tent onto Sanford Stadium's playing surface before the Olympic gold-medal women's soccer game three years ago in Athens, Ga., and hearing the roar from a record 76,489 spectators.

"Awe," said the goalkeeper for the U.S. women's national soccer team. "I took a minute or two to get myself prepared, because I couldn't do anything but smile. It was amazing that people were coming out in droves to see us play. Then I realized it was support. Now, it's a confidence thing, something that helps us through games."

Scurry and her teammates will experience a comparable roar at Giants Stadium today before opening the 1999 Women's World Cup against Denmark at 3 p.m. That roar, possibly from an all-time-record few hundred more spectators, and, more, almost as daunting for opponents in the next three weeks, will be an advantage for the home team, which many think will win the tournament easily.

As Danish coach Jorgen Hvidemose, whose team lost to the Americans in the 1995 World Cup's first round and again in the 1996 Olympics' opener, quipped at a news conference in New York, "We'll have 300 Danes at Giants Stadium."

Supportive noise alone, however, does not win world championships. As noted by a Seattle columnist, a more serious Hvidemose also said that: "All teams have weaknesses. You only have to find them. We know how to beat [the U.S. team], but we're not sure we can do that."

What his players and the 14 other national teams in this Cup face in the Americans is a slightly tarnished but still highly polished piece of soccer artwork. It's an exciting, creative team with 15 wins and a draw in 19 games this year alone, a team that since its 1985 founding has gone 157-33-13, won the first world title in 1991, finished third in 1995 and won an Olympic gold medal in 1996.

It's heavy in experience, even if only four of its 20 players are 30 or older. In fact, three starters -- midfielder Kristine Lilly, forward Mia Hamm and middie Julie Foudy -- are Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in the world in terms of international games played. Lilly and Foudy are 28; Hamm is 27. The team can start eight players with at least 115 caps, believed a first for any national team, male or female.

Hamm is peaking again, with international cameras documenting every move, and just set a world record for international goals; she now has 109, most of any man or woman player. But her publicity and cult following among teen-age girls aside, she's not the team's top scorer this year.

Plus, the U.S. players patiently sign autographs and chat with fans after games, most enjoying an almost evangelistic approach to being role models and encouraging participation in their sport.

"The U.S. team is one of the most charismatic dynamics that has come along in our world of sport in quite some time," said Geoff Mason, ABC-TV's executive producer for World Cup coverage. "They don't need any hype at all. Just look at their faces, and you will feel their excitement and passion to be in this tournament and to do well."

But there is that tarnish, which is why the other three seeded teams in this Cup -- Germany, Norway and China -- and maybe unseeded Brazil have real hopes -- and chances -- of winning, thus keeping things interesting.

For the Americans lose an occasional big game; to wit, a World Cup semifinal to Norway in 1995 and two of their last three matches to main-threat China, both in the past four months. Some whisper about a slowing defense.

But Scurry observes that "parity" in the women's game is increasing, citing "improved support by some countries for their teams." U.S. coach Tony DiCicco and many players fret that without a pro league domestically, other, more dedicated countries will reach the U.S. squad's level.

Whatever the fears, DiCicco and his players want this World Cup title badly. They've been practicing and living together since Jan. 3 and, in interviews yesterday, to a player, all seemed spirited and ready.

As Lilly said, "Anytime we're playing to be the best in the world, that's what's important to us. Right now, in the World Cup arena, Norway is the defending champion. Basically, we want to win back that World Cup. Nothing will ever compare to the Olympics, but right now, we're fighting for the same thing, to be No. 1."

Added DiCicco, goalkeeper coach for the 1991 Cup titlist and head coach since 1994: "This is the closest team I've ever seen. And this team, more than any of the past, has the most depth. There are players on our bench who can step into the game and literally win it for us. And that's very important.

"We know the challenges are going to be great. But we also look at this as an opportunity. for each of these players to show America how seriously they take this sport. It's time to play."

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