U.S. sees its defense paying big dividends

High-scoring Germany tries to cash in tonight

Women's World Cup

October 05, 2003|By John Jeansonne | John Jeansonne,NEWSDAY

In international soccer's import-export business, the United States so far is striking an extremely profitable balance in the Women's World Cup: American goals are coming in bunches, while foreign goals are seeping in.

At 12-1, the goal differential obviously reflects the home team's industrial might as well as the strict scoring tariffs being imposed by the U.S. team's defense. For tonight's Cup semifinal match against Germany in Portland, Ore., there is suspicion that the latter may be the more crucial need.

That's because Germany (4-0-0) has produced an even larger differential - 20 goals for, 3 against. Germany's victories of 4-1 over Canada, 3-0 over Japan and 6-1 over Australia in group play were followed by a 7-1 romp over Russia in the quarterfinals.

Even before the tournament, there was some feeling among the sport's insiders, including U.S. coach April Heinrichs, that imposing German forward Birgit Prinz may be the most dangerous striker in the world. "Because she can win games," Heinrichs said.

Tall, mobile and strong, Prinz has been a Most Valuable Player and leading scorer on both sides of the Atlantic - for her German club, FFC Frankfurt, and for the Carolina Cougars of the recently folded WUSA. She is paired on her national team's forward line with international veteran Maren Meinert, an All-Star in the WUSA with the Boston Breakers.

More than a few experts further argued that Germany, though it lacks the depth of the American team, had been featuring a slightly stronger starting 11 than the United States until it lost starting defenders Steffi Jones (knee) and Linda Bresonik (thigh) to injury.

Thus presented with a potential fissure in the German defense Sunday, the Americans could expand their scoring opportunities. There don't figure to be any such favors for the U.S. defense, but that's where the Americans' confidence in their defensive work during these past two weeks kicks in.

"Our back line has been incredible," midfielder Kristine Lilly said.

Scoring leader Abby Wambach concurred: "My hat is off to our defensive line. Our flat-back four has done a tremendous job, and obviously Bri [Scurry, in goal] has been so strong."

Just 38 minutes into the tournament, veteran defender Brandi Chastain suffered a broken foot bone and had to be replaced by the team's only non-professional, 21-year-old University of North Carolina senior Cat Reddick. Nothing untoward resulted.

Reddick not only settled quickly into her defensive responsibilities, but she also has scored two goals.

"Cat Reddick has the ability to play with these women," Heinrichs said. "She's one of the best in the air; she's technically clean, athletically gifted, with great speed.

"And Joy makes her better. Joy Fawcett is the glue to our back line; she's so important in the communication. I'm really pleased with our defensive shape."

In spite of Reddick's inexperience, Heinrichs mostly has used her at inside back in the four-back defense, next to the team's old pro, Fawcett. At 35 and one of four Americans playing in a fourth World Cup, Fawcett continues to make the best attackers in the world - Sweden's Hanna Ljungberg, Nigeria's Patience Avre and Norway's Dagny Mellgren - disappear.

At outside back, Kate Sobrero and Christie Pearce - plus World Cup rookie Kylie Bivens in place of Pearce for one game - have blunted opponents' attacks even as they've stirred up things with occasional offensive forays down the wings.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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