International Soccer
Best U.S. team ever? If so, expect a third title

Brian Westfall, Soccer Editor

Stoppage Time Chengdu, China (Sports Network) - During a recent press conference, United States players Kate Markgraf and Abby Wambach were asked tough hypothetical questions about this year's World Cup team.

If the United States, ranked No. 1 in the world by FIFA, played the United States' 1999 World Cup championship team, who would win? It was a question posed a few different times.

Markgraf eventually answered, but it wasn't a response anyone expected.

"I think the difference is in the past 10 years I have a ton more wrinkles, my hair is no longer red, white and blue and the piercings are gone," Markgraf joked.

Markgraf avoided directly answering the question, but she made sure to point out this United States team had at least one major edge on the '99 team, the last U.S. team to win the World Cup.

"We're a heck of a lot faster than in '99. I was one of the fastest people in '99 and I'm probably like middle of the depth charts here, and some of that might be because of age but I think it's more because of the personnel," she said.

Another major difference between this U.S. team and any of its predecessors is many of the veterans who helped establish the team as the best in the world are no longer playing.

Kristine Lilly
Kristine Lilly and the U.S. will face the toughest group in the tournament.
Mia Hamm, the United States' - and world's - all-time leading scorer? Gone.

Brandi Chastain, famous for pulling her jersey off to celebrate the '99 penalty-kick win over China in the final? You might find her in the crowd.

Twelve of the 21 players on the U.S. roster haven't played in a World Cup before.

"Four years ago you had players that had been on the team forever; more experience playing wise," said U.S. captain Kristine Lilly, who has played on every U.S. World Cup team.

So, that seems to make the answer to the question obvious. How could a team with so many young players possibly be as good as any of the U.S. teams of the past? The U.S. has never finished worst than third in the Cup, also winning in 1991.

Facing the toughest group in the tournament, which includes third-ranked Sweden and fifth-ranked North Korea, just advancing is a daunting challenge - even for the top-ranked team in the world.

"I say, 'Bring it on,'" Lilly said. "I'm looking forward to it."

"Let's take the challenge and go out and prove to the rest of the world that we can get this done against the worst odds they could possibly throw at us." U.S. coach Greg Ryan said.

Another thing this U.S. team isn't lacking is confidence, something it needs in a World Cup Ryan believes features the most talent ever.

"I do think it's a great World Cup, and every four years, the teams become more and more talented," Ryan said. "So I can say that without a doubt that the best teams and the best players ever will be in this World Cup."

That includes the United States.

So, back to that question. Really, who would win?

Markgraf might not have answered, but Wambach did.

"I do think," Wambach said, "this team beats the '99 World Cup team."

If so, this might be the best U.S. team ever. To earn that label, the United States has to win the World Cup.

The first step of the journey is Tuesday morning against North Korea. The tournament opens Monday with Germany playing Argentina, and ends Sept. 30.

Following are predictions for the entire World Cup, starting with the group stage (two teams advance from each group):

GROUP A

1, Germany - Defending World Cup champions, led by three-time world player of the Year Birgit Prinz, will have no trouble winning this group. ... 2, England - Back in Cup for the first time since 1995, when it advanced to quarterfinals. ... 3, Japan - Has qualified for every World Cup, but barely made this year's field and has only advanced out of the group stage once. ... 4, Argentina upset Brazil for the South American championship, but it's not ready to compete on the world stage.

GROUP B

1, United States - Team is 31-0-6 in last two years with its lone blemish a penalty-kick loss to Germany, which counts as a tie in the record books. ... 2, Sweden - Runners-up in 2003 will escape from brutal group to make another run at the title. ... 3, North Korea - The best team in the tournament that won't play in the quarterfinals; but if they get there, watch out. ... 4, Nigeria - Playing in its fifth World Cup, but overmatched in this group.

GROUP C

1, Canada - Overshadowed by the Americans, Canada quietly made a run to the 2003 semifinals. Don't be surprised if it makes it that far again. ... 2, Norway - Highest-ranked team in group at fourth in the world, 1995 champions have advanced out of the group stage in previous four Cups. ... 3, Australia - Has never won a World Cup game, going 0-7-2 in last three tournaments. ... 4, Ghana - Black Queens are improving and could surprise in their third straight Cup.

GROUP D

1, China - By its standards, China has struggled in recent years but will be tough to beat on home soil. ... 2, Brazil - Led by 2006 world player of the year Marta, who had three goals in the 2003 Cup when she was just 17. ... 3, Denmark (6) ... Runners-up in the '07 Algarve Cup to the United States, Denmark has to prove itself again on the world stage after missing last World Cup. ... 4, New Zealand ... Possibly the worst team in the tournament, New Zealand was outscored 20-1 in seven recent friendlies.

QUARTERFINALS

Sweden over Germany - Rematch of 2003 final, which Germany won in golden goal overtime, goes Sweden's way this time. ... Canada over Brazil - Canadian striker Christine Sinclair steals the spotlight from Marta. ... United States over England - Most lopsided quarterfinal a nice break following brutal group stage for United States. ... China over Norway - Chinese continue to ride wave of emotion from playing at home.

SEMIFINALS

Sweden over Canada - Rematch of 2003 semifinal, but Canada again falls short of reaching first final. ... United States over China - Teams relive 1999 final (see Brandi Chastain above) as the United States wins on penalty kicks.

THIRD-PLACE MATCH

China over Canada - China adds third-place finish to previous second-, fourth- and fifth-place efforts as Canada settles for fourth for second straight Cup.

FINAL

United States over Sweden - If this United States team is better than the '99 version, it shouldn't have trouble finishing off a title run. For Sweden, at least this time it won't have to wait until overtime to come up short of its goal.

Comments? Criticism? Applause?
Contact Pat Martin at pmartin@sportsnetwork.com
Contact Tim Keeble at tkeeble@sportsnetwork.com
Contact Brian Westfall at bwestfall@sportsnetwork.com

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