World Cup draw and travel stacked against U.S. women

There were a couple rehearsals before the Women's World Cup Draw, and both times Sweden and North Korea — two of the more frightening foes facing the four seeds — found their way into the United States' group.

Then the real thing began, and Sweden and North Korea — and, for good measure Nigeria — were added to Group A's roster, making the host's foursome this World Cup's "death" group. Throw in the most onerous travel schedule (six games in six cities) in the competition (shared by Norway and Sweden) and uncertainty about Shannon MacMillan's participation, and the U.S. women face an arduous path to their second successive title and third in four World Cups. "Sweden is the toughest opener we've ever had at a world event, aside from Norway in the [2000 Sydney] Olympics," U.S. coach April Heinrichs said following the July 17 draw at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., site of the Oct. 12 championship game. "To me, this draw feels a lot like — and I walk away feeling the same way a lot like — the 2000 Olympic Draw.

It's a great group. It's an incredibly challenging group. Clearly what we have is a group with possibly four of the seven best teams in the world." FIFA might not agree — its formula somehow graded Nigeria 23rd in the inaugural "Women's World Ranking," used to determine tournament seeds — but women's soccer's most knowledgeable fig- The challenge offered by the Nigerians and North Koreans is twofold. They are widely considered the most brutally physical teams in women's soccer — "on the verge of being outside the spirit of the idea of tackling," Heinrichs defined it — and the U.S. women could head into the knockout round rather banged up. "Hopefully, FIFA is going to come out and make some strong statements to the referees in the referee assessment and training programs between now and then," Heinrichs said. "FIFA [needs to say], look, let's make sure the women's game doesn't follow the path of the men's game, where it gets violent, and then we have to clean it up."

Survive, and Norway or Brazil, more than likely, awaits in the quarterfinals. The semifinals offer Germany, called "probably the top team in the world" by Canada coach Even Pellerud, a sentiment many share. Win them all and the final's a '99 "An easy road," U.S. captain Julie Foudy quipped. "That's how the Olympics were: There were no easy games. People keep saying we're in the 'Group of Death,' but whether it's a perceived difficult group or a perceived easy group, it's always going to be hard. "Mia [Hamm] and I were sitting there [during the draw], looking at the list of teams, and I'm like, 'Oh my God. Any of these teams could do well.' Whereas before you'd say, 'Oh that's a good group. You can rest some players maybe in that game.' Before, we didn't have that parity.

"I think it's going to make for an interesting tournament. You might have some surprises. Hopefully, you do, and, hopefully, it's not us." Group B, with Norway (without Hege Riise) and Brazil (without Pretinha), also looks tough, with France (with Marinette Pichon) poised to make a statement.

The Chinese, who wailed about travel during the 1999 tournament, would face two moves, from L.A. to Portland and back, en route to the title. They play their first two matches (vs. Ghana and Australia) in Carson, head north for their group finale (vs. Russia), stay there for the quarterfinals and semifinals (both against teams flying from the east), then return to Southern California for the final. To believe Ma Liangxing, China's coach, the title is the furthest thing from their minds. "Generally speaking," he said, "we don't have an 'end goal,' such as finish as champion or runners-up. As a coach, my task is to lead the team to try our best for every match."

Heinrichs, more straightforward, says winning the Cup is her goal. She thinks the draw provides the impetus to do so. "Everyone called our [Olympics] group the 'Group of Death,' she said, "and what that group did for us is raise all our players' standards and motivate our players prior to the Olympics. "This is the great challenge for our players. That is what gets the fire in the belly going, and going into this World Cup, the fire in the belly is more important than anything else."

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