What tired legs? US ready for semifinal vs France

July 13, 2011 - 2:14 AM
Germany Soccer WWC USA

US goalkeeper Hope Solo stops a shot during the matchday –1 training of the United States on the eve of the semifinal match against France during the Women’s Soccer World Cup in Moenchengladbach, Germany, Tuesday, July 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

MOENCHENGLADBACH, Germany (AP) — U.S. coach Pia Sundhage gave her players about a day to revel in their epic victory over Brazil and the lovefest it sparked back home.

When the team arrived for training Tuesday, though, it was back to business. The U.S. women are one game away from reaching their first World Cup final since 1999 — the last time they won soccer's biggest prize — and the only thing on their minds now is beating France.

"I gathered them in the locker room and said, 'Now we talk about France. Either you play or you go home,'" Sundhage said. "I think that kind of feeling will help us."

The Americans are the top-ranked team in the world and defending Olympic gold medalists, yet they were almost afterthoughts when the tournament began two weeks ago. Two-time defending champion Germany was considered the heavy favorite, sure to get a boost playing on home soil. Then there was Brazil, runner-up at the last three major tournaments and led by Marta, FIFA's player of the year five years running.

And the United States? It had to win a playoff with Italy just to get here, and had been uncharacteristically inconsistent with three losses in a five-month span.

But the Germans are now spectators, stunned by Japan in the quarterfinals. Brazil is gone, too, losing to the Americans in a penalty shootout in one of the most exciting games ever at the World Cup, men's or women's. And the Americans? They're still playing, and they go into Wednesday night's semifinal with more than a touch of swagger.

"We have what it takes," Abby Wambach said. "It's just a matter of putting it all together."

This is the quickest turnaround of the World Cup for the Americans, and there's been much ado about their fitness. They are the oldest team in the tournament, after all, and had only two days rest between games. France hasn't played since Saturday, though Les Bleues had an emotional doozy, too. They beat England 4-3 on penalties after scoring in the 88th minute to tie it 1-1.

"It's true we've had one additional day" of rest, French coach Bruno Bini said. "I think it's quite fair because the American team is in better shape."

And the Americans insist tired legs won't be an issue. Captain Christie Rampone said she was watching her teammates run around at training Tuesday, and no one looked fatigued or gimpy.

The bigger concern is the Americans' backline. Rachel Buehler has started all but one game the last two years, and her bruising style of defense — she isn't called the "Buehldozer" for nothing — has been vital. But she's suspended for the semifinal after getting a red card for taking down Marta in the box in the 65th minute Sunday.

While Sundhage wouldn't say who will play in Buehler's place, Becky Sauerbrunn was working with the starters during training Tuesday.

"I've been fortunate enough to play with her (with the WPS' magicJack) so we're very connected that way," said Rampone, who will pair with Sauerbrunn in central defense. "Becky and I feel confident together. We'll watch some film on France today, see what little tactics they have, what little tendencies they have with their forwards, communicate with each other and we'll be fine."

They will have to be because, much like Brazil, France has creativity and flair.

Playmaker Louisa Necib, she of the silken touch and deft passes, has been likened to Zinedine Zidane, the highest compliment a French player can get. Her control of the midfield is masterful, the driving force behind France's quick, fluid offense. Marie-Laure Delie is as dangerous as they come with 23 goals in 24 appearances for Les Bleues, including two here in Germany. Gaetane Thiney has also scored twice during the tournament.

Les Bleues often appear seamless — no surprise considering 10 of the 21 players are teammates at Olympique Lyonnais, which won this year's women's Champions League final.

"For us, it's very important to be patient," Sundhage said. "We need to pick up the rhythm and dictate the tempo, and we need the midfield to get more involved. I don't want to make it a stretch game. Or make it a (physical) fight."

But France has struggled against bigger, more physical teams in the past, and they don't come much stronger than the Americans.

Unlike the Americans, who have reached the semifinals at each of the six World Cups, this is the first trip for Les Bleues. And they have never beaten the Americans, going 0-11-1 in their previous meetings. The U.S. has scored 38 goals in the 12 games to just eight for France.

Of course, Mexico had never beaten the Americans, either, and look what happened in regional qualifying.

But the "bumpy road," as Sundhage likes to call it, has made the Americans stronger, their success even sweeter. Their grit and determination is one of the reasons they've become such a huge hit back home, with Hollywood celebrities, professional athletes and folks who've never seen a soccer game before all rallying behind them.

Should the U.S. beat France, it would face either Japan or Sweden in Sunday's final, with a chance to become the first team to win three World Cup titles.

"Losing is not an option," Wambach said. "We want to win this thing, and France is standing in our way right now."