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Soccer prelims away from Sydney

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Preliminary-round play for soccer during the the 2000 Summer Olympics will be an out-of-Sydney experience, thanks to the number of teams (16 men's, eight women's) and the constant need for sizable stadiums to accommodate the large number of games and the size of accompanying crowds.

It's possible that the U.S. women won't even advance to Sydney until the championship game — if the Americans aren't eliminated before then. And the men's first appearance in the Olympic host city wouldn't be until the quarterfinals at the earliest or even the semis or finals — again, if the U.S. men's team hasn't been eliminated.

Divided into four pools of four teams each, the men's tournament will be scattered among five different cities — with preliminary matches in Melbourne, Adelaide, Canberra and Brisbane before Sydney joins in as a site for quarterfinal, semifinal and medal-round matches.

Most of the preliminary games for the eight women's teams will be in either Melbourne or Canberra, except the preliminary games featuring host Australia, which are scheduled for the Sydney Football Stadium.

The U.S. women's team plays its first three preliminary games — against Norway, China and Nigeria — at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. If the Americans finish first in their pool, then it's on to Bruce Stadium in Canberra for the semifinals. If the United States is second, then the semifinal match is in Sydney. Both the women's gold- and bronze-medal games will be at the Sydney Football Stadium.

The U.S. men join the Czech Republic, Cameroon and Kuwait in a relatively safer preliminary foursome. The Americans open against the Czechs in Canberra and stay at Bruce Stadium to meet Cameroon. The United State completes pool play in Melbourne against Kuwait.

The men's quarterfinals are set for Adelaide's Hindmarsh Stadium, the Brisbane Cricket Ground, the Melbourne Cricket Ground and the Sydney Football Stadium. Semifinals are at the latter two sites, while the medal matches are strictly Sydney affairs — the bronze-medal game at the Football Stadium and the gold-medal at the Olympic Stadium on the day before the closing ceremonies.

HOME SWEET MELBOURNE: The U.S. women's team will be headquartered in Melbourne, which is OK with veteran forward Tiffeny Milbrett. "You might not get the complete Olympic experience," she says, "but the complete Olympic experience might take you away from your game."

Added defender Brandi Chastain, who remembers the 1996 Summer Games: "In Atlanta, we weren't in the village. It's a wonderful thing. No lines. It will be a great plus for us."

SPEAKING OF AUSTRALIA: For U.S. defender Kate Sobrero, Sydney and the rest of Australia will serve as a welcome setting for a women's soccer tournament, with advantages not offered by other host cities for previous international competitions.

"At least it's Australia and it's Americanized," Sobrero said. "It's still English. You're not having to watch CNN as the only channel on TV."

IN SYNCH IN THE POOL: Earlier this year, the United States Olympic Committee brought together several successful national women's teams — soccer, softball, ice hockey and synchronized swimming — to focus on how to repeat as gold medallists.

One interesting, unplanned moment came as members of the women's soccer team took to the pool to try their hand at synchronized swimming lifts and maneuvers, including the difficult "iron cross."

Soccer team members and USOC officials all agreed that while the soccer team didn't win high marks for artistic merit, it was considered a resounding success since Chastain — who served as the center point of the iron cross — didn't drown at the bottom of the pool.

E-mail: taylor@desnews.com