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Americans won’t take any teams for granted

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Halfway around the world from its original locale, in the midst of the busiest of U.S. sports seasons, the Women's World Cup has arrived.

Unlike the wildly successful tournament of four years ago — staged in early summer with little outside competition — this World Cup could struggle for attention. It's already scaled-down from the 1999 version that turned into a phenomenon.

That doesn't mean when the defending champion United States takes the field Sunday at RFK Stadium in Washington that it won't be vigorously supported. More than 30,000 seats have been sold for the game with Sweden, and tournament organizers expect similarly large crowds whenever the Americans play.

And the U.S. players can't wait to take the field.

"We just want to get underway," Abby Wambach said Friday. "I'd have preferred to start playing last week and get this going. The anticipation has been building for the last couple weeks, really.

"You take all the external things away that could distract you and just focus on the game. You tell yourself it's just another game, but with more on the line. You're playing for your country, in the World Cup, but it's still just a soccer game."

The first two games will be in Philadelphia on Saturday, with Norway taking on France and Nigeria facing North Korea. Norway is the favorite in Group B, while Nigeria and North Korea are in Group A with the United States and Sweden.

On Saturday night in Columbus, Ohio, Group C begins with Germany facing Canada and Japan taking on Argentina.

Sunday's other game in Washington has Group B's Brazil and South Korea. At night in Carson, Calif., it's Group D teams China vs. Ghana and Australia vs. Russia.

The United States won the first world championship in 1991 in China, then finished third as Norway won in 1995 in Sweden. In '99, the Americans beat China in a penalty-kick shootout before a sold-out Rose Bowl to conclude the biggest event in U.S. women's sports history.

When the SARS outbreak hit China, FIFA, soccer's world governing body, decided to move its showcase. Only the United States made a viable bid.

Now, generally with smaller stadiums and only three months to plan it instead of three years for the '99 tournament, some expectations have been diminished.

But not the expectations placed on the U.S. women — by themselves and by a public that forsees only a gold medal.

Then there is the hope that another rousing success on the field, in the stands and on the airwaves will boost the chances to revive the WUSA, which folded Monday.

Does that make the Americans any more nervous?

"There is definitely a nervousness, but it's a good thing, too," co-captain Julie Foudy said. "You learn as a veteran, as (team consultant) Colleen Hacker says, 'Have your butterflies fly in formation.'

"I think for the younger players, it takes a little longer for their butterflies to get in formation. The more you are in that environment, the more you use it as a rallying tool."

Unlike '99, when the Americans breezed through the opening round, the competition in Group A is formidable. Sweden is ranked fifth in the world and is the highest-rated opponent the Americans possibly could have faced in the round-robin, from which two teams in each sector will advance. North Korea is ranked seventh.

The U.S. players realize the level of competition throughout the world has risen in the last four years, so, Foudy said, "looking beyond anyone, that's death."

Sweden will be particularly tough.

"They are more experienced, with a lot of the same players together over time and having played in the World Cup and Olympics," said Joy Fawcett, the other U.S. co-captain. "It's a good test to open up the tournament."