Finally, the U.S. women's soccer team will find out how good it is.
More than six years after it was formed, the U.S. team is now positioned to achieve the one goal that ever mattered: winning the inaugural world championship of women's soccer.
Twelve nations have ventured to China to compete in the first Federation Internationale de Football Association World Championships of Women's Soccer. China opens play today against Norway in Canton's Tianhe Stadium.
The United States, in Group B with Japan, Brazil and Sweden, begins play with the Swedes tomorrow in Punyu, China. The top two teams in each of the three groups and two wild cards will form the eight-team single-elimination tournament that begins Nov. 24. The championship will be played at Tianhe Stadium on Nov. 30.
"I've been waiting five years for this one tournament," said striker Carin Jennings, who has scored 19 goals in 45 appearances for the United States against other national teams. "We've been in so many tournaments where it didn't matter whether we won or lost. Nobody would know. Suddenly, five years has come down to one month."
During a 10-month run that ended in May, where the American women won 18 straight, including 14 consecutive shutouts, the United States established itself as the favorite to win the tournament in China, widely called the World Cup for women's soccer. The streak included breezing through five matches by a combined 49-0 in the CONCACAF, the qualifying tournament for North and South American teams, in April, beating Canada, 5-0, to become the regional representative.
Hampered by injuries to key players and burdened by its perceived invincibility, the United States has struggled since June, posting only two wins and a tie in its past eight outings. This period began with a 1-0 loss in Denmark and included two losses to Norway in New England.
Coach Anson Dorrance, who has led North Carolina to nine of the past 10 women's NCAA titles, says calling the United States the favorite for the world championship is foolish.
"Anyone with an IQ over 50 can't expect us to win it," said Dorrance, who will be absent for North Carolina's NCAA title defense, along with U.S. starting midfielder Kristine Lilly. "Even in the men's World Cup, the odds are one in five that any one team would win it. You can't expect to know who's going to win [the women's championship] when there are eight teams of equal ability."
Michelle Akers-Stahl, who has scored a team-high 41 goals, leads an impatient U.S. attack that eschews the traditional, slow-building offensive philosophy for one that favors constant pressure fed by long balls from the back. April Heinrichs, the first-year University of Maryland women's coach, has scored 32 goals in 42 international appearances.
"Personally, I think a lot of people are overrating us. We're in the top six in the world, but no way I can rate us No. 1," said Akers-Stahl, who scored the first U.S. goal ever in a 2-2 tie in Denmark in August 1985. "It's unrealistic to expect us to win."
It's been a long road to the World Cup for this close-knit group that includes seven players from the original player pool in 1985 and six more who joined the program in 1986. Half of the 18 roster members have played under Dorrance at Chapel Hill.
National team members weren't paid until July 1, when each received the first of five monthly $1,000 payments. Players received $10 per day for room and board while training, and the daily stipend increased to $40-$45 on July 1.
"This team has probably given up more money for this run at the World Cup than any team ever," said Akers-Stahl. "The players have all quit their jobs two or three times. Nobody has any money. . . . One of the jokes is join the national team and lose 10 pounds because we didn't have enough money for food. But it's gotten better."
Akers-Stahl and goalkeeper Kim Maslin-Kammerdeiner, another from the original player pool, both said the team not only is compensated poorly but has received little promotion or other support from the U.S. Soccer Federation.
Akers-Stahl points to the purple and green sweat suits the women wore until this summer, when they received generic blue sweats with a USSF patch. The team did not receive its USA outerwear until Sunday, before its flight to China.
"We used to get asked, 'What are you, a tennis team?' " she said. "You play hard, you want to look good. That's a sore spot."
Maslin-Kammerdeiner points to the $10,000 bonus each of the U.S. men received after qualifying for the 1990 World Cup through CONCACAF. "We received a Budweiser/USSF T-Shirt and a week later a Budweiser polo shirt. We call them our $5,000 T-shirts," she said. "We would have been happy with $10. These women have given up careers or not been able to start one. We've put our lives on hold, not been able to buy houses. [Per diem] doesn't pay the mortgage."