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U.S. gets no favors in Women’s World Cup draw

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Tuesday, November 30, 2010 – 2:31pm
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Carin Jennings-Gabarra will turn 46 in 2011 and Michelle Akers will turn 45.

Too late, then, to haul the most valuable player and the top goal scorer, respectively, from the 1991 Women’s World Cup in China out of retirement to help the U.S. team next summer.

Assistance might well be needed. On Monday, the draw for the 2011 Women’s World Cup made clear that the 16-team, 32-match event in nine German cities will be no stroll in a beer garden for the U.S.

The Americans will open against North Korea on June 28, then play Colombia on July 2 and close out the first round against Sweden on July 6.

In between, they will know whether they have time to celebrate the Fourth of July.

“It’s a tough group, but if you want to win the World Cup, you have to win every single game,” U.S. Coach Pia Sundhage said.

That statement is only partially true. No tournament winner has ever lost a game, but the U.S. women’s team was held to a tie by China in the 1999 final before prevailing on penalty kicks at the Rose Bowl.

Similarly, Germany was tied by Sweden in the 2003 final before also taking the trophy on penalty kicks, and Germany was tied by England in the first round on the 2007 tournament that Germany eventually won.

Still, Sundhage’s point was worth making. The U.S. was not dealt any favors by the draw, and the teams that will play the Americans will not be short on confidence going up against the world’s No. 1-ranked team.

The opener will be the fourth consecutive tournament in which the U.S. and North Korea have met. But the latter team has made significant progress of late and is ranked No. 6 in the world.

“What has changed is that now other teams are not quite as happy as before when they see our name placed in their group,” said North Korea Coach Kim Kwang-Min. “That proves that we are respected, maybe even feared.”

Colombia has qualified for the Cup for the first time and has probably achieved all it can in doing so.

Fourth-ranked Sweden, though, is another matter. “We’ll be aiming to reach the semifinals at least,” Coach Thomas Dennerby said.

The first time the U.S. played Sweden in a World Cup was in Panyu, China, in 1991, when the Americans had to hold off a furious rally by the Swedes before prevailing, 3-2.

One of the players on the Swedish team that day was Sundhage, who realizes that the game against her native country could spell the difference for the U.S. between advancing and going home.

She and Dennerby are friends, but only to a point. “As far as the World Cup is concerned, friendships sometimes have to be put on hold for 90 minutes,” Dennerby said.

The tournament will open June 26 when host and favorite Germany plays Canada in Berlin. It will conclude on July 17 at the Frankfurt Arena.

The Germans and Canadians should progress out of Group A, which also includes Nigeria and France.

Japan and England are considered the favorites in Group B but could be tested by Mexico and New Zealand.

The U.S. and Sweden should progress out of Group C, unless North Korea lives up to its coach’s billing.

In Group D, Brazil is favored to progress, with Norway likely to finish ahead of Australia and Equatorial Guinea.

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