The U.S. Women's National Team enters what surely will be an eventful 2004 focused on a run to the Olympics in Greece, but with numerous interesting storylines, including the final international matches for several legends, the first off-season in three years without a pro league and the emergence of some exciting young talent., the first part of the USA's 2004 season will include two familiar events and one new one -- the CONCACAF Qualifying for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.
For the past two Olympic Games that have included women's soccer, the FIFA Women's World Cup in the year prior to the Olympics served as the qualifying tournament, but for the first time ever, CONCACAF held a separate qualifying tournament, taking place in Costa Rica from February 25 through March 7 .
The USA qualified for Athens with a 4-0 win over Costa Rica in the semifinals, then defeated Mexico in the championship game, 3-2, after falling behind 2-0 in the first half. Before and after that tournament, the USA will attended major international events that they won in 2003, and triumphed again in 2004, competing in the Four Nations Tournament in China at the end of January and the Algarve Cup in Portugal in mid-March, defeating Norway in the championship game, 4-1.
The trip to Costa Rica marked the first-ever matches by the U.S. women in Central America, and the USA added the first CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying Tournament to an impressive group of "firsts" as the team won the first CONCACAF Women's World Cup Qualifying tournament, as well as the first Women's World Cup, the first Olympic Women's Soccer Tournament, the first Goodwill Games women's soccer event, the first Pacific Cup and the first CONCACAF Women's Gold Cup.
U.S. VETERANS FOCUSED ON FINAL GLORY IN GREECE
The Americans will have to wait until June 9 to find out their draw in an unusual 10-team Olympic tournament, scheduled for August 11 (two days before Opening Ceremonies) through August 29 in Athens , Volos , Heraklio, Thessaloniki and Patras. The Final will take place in Athens .
U.S. head coach April Heinrichs used 30 players in 23 full international matches in 2003, a number that should be equaled or surpassed in 2004, as the U.S. player pool will be without a professional league, and U.S. Soccer will fill the gap with increased training and games.
The USA went 17-2-4 in 2003, losing only to China at the Four Nations Tournament, a setback that was avenged in the Algarve Cup Final, and to Germany in the 2003 FIFA Women's World Cup semifinals. Three players earned their 100th career cap – Christie Rampone (formerly Pearce), Tiffany Roberts and Kate Markgraf (formerly Sobrero) – upping the members of the U.S. Women's Century Club to 17.
In addition to winning the Four Nations and Algarve Cup, both featuring the world's top teams, the USA won 11 games against teams in the 2003 Women's World Cup. This year marks the third cycle of an Olympics after a Women's World Cup. In 1995, the USA finished third at the WWC and then won the Olympics. In 1999, the USA won the WWC, then finished second at the Olympics. In 2003, the USA finished third at the WWC, perhaps positive foreshadowing for a successful Olympic campaign, which will be led once again by the U.S. veterans.
To say 2004 is the end of an "era" for the U.S. women is almost a misnomer, as the five veterans of the inaugural Women's World Cup Team in 1991 – Brandi Chastain, Joy Fawcett, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy and Mia Hamm – have essentially been a part of the entire "era" of the U.S. Women's National Team, all debuting for the USA in the late 1980s.
In fact, Kristine Lilly, the world's all-time leader in caps, has appeared in almost 89% of the matches ever played by the U.S. women. While 2004 will likely see the end to the international careers of several players who skyrocketed women's soccer into the mainstream with their immense talent, vibrant personalities and undying dedication to the game, it may also see the emergence of numerous young players who owe their opportunities to the veterans.
YOUNG TALENT STRIVES FOR PLAYING TIME
The 2003 Women's World Cup already provided a grand stage for future stars and in 2004 fans may see the next generation of U.S. players like Abby Wambach, Cat Reddick, Shannon Boxx, Heather O'Reilly, Lindsay Tarpley, Leslie Osborne, Kylie Bivens and Lori Chalupny among others, stamp their presence on the National Team. Still, with an 18-player Olympic Team roster, and 19 players from the 2003 Women's World Cup Team fighting for roster spots, the young players will be challenged to step up during the matches in 2003 and show they can contribute to the run for a gold medal.
Following a busy January, February and March of international travel and games, the U.S. women are currently in a four-month Olympic Residency Training Camp program to fill the void in the absence of the professional league, which is similar to the residency camps the USA underwent, with excellent results, before the 1995, 1996, 1999 and 2000 world championship tournaments.
The summer will feature six home friendlies between April and August, giving the U.S. women excellent preparation for the Olympics. The results of a more residency-weighted schedule as opposed to the players spread out among eight clubs will prove interesting as 2004 unfolds, but due to the league, Heinrichs's pool is deeper than ever all over the field.
NOW THAT'S A "DEPTH" CHART
The U.S. strike force is unmatched by any other country with the world's all-time leading scorer Mia Hamm (who once again led the USA in points in 2003 with eight goals and nine assists) showing no signs of slowing down as she comes to end of her brilliant career.
With the physically dominating 5-foot-11 strikers Abby Wambach (the USA's leading goal scoring in 2003 with nine and in the WWC with three) and Cindy Parlow, slashers Tiffeny Milbrett and Shannon MacMillan (now fully recovered from ACL surgery), and former Under-19 stars Heather O'Reilly and Lindsay Tarpley all vying for time, the U.S. front line will produce goals.
In the midfield, Kristine Lilly and Julie Foudy should once again be staples, but several players will be trying to solidify spots, including Women's World Cup star Boxx, Aly Wagner and Angela Hucles, as up-and-comers Osborne, Chalupny, and Bivens try to work their way into the lineup. In the back, the USA will once again have veterans Fawcett, Chastain, Rampone and Markgraf to add experience and security, but youngsters Reddick (who played so well in place of the injured Chastain during WWC '03), rising star Heather Mitts and Under-21 star Amy LePeilbet will all look to breakthrough.
In goal, Briana Scurry reclaimed her spot as the USA 's #1 during 2003, and will be tough to unseat this year, but with Siri Mullinix, Jenni Branam, Kristen Luckenbill and Hope Solo all wanting minutes in the net, the competition in goal will be tougher than ever. With the level of play in women's international soccer rising each year, the USA have to put together one of its best teams to take gold in 2004 and send their legends out in a place they deserve to be – on top of the medal stand.