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|The U.S. may be the No. 1 ranked team in the world, but the Americans struggled to qualify for the Women's World Cup. Will Alex Morgan & Co. be able to ramp up their play when it matters most?|
Can the U.S. women's national team confound its doubters by winning the World Cup in Germany? Likeable coach Pia Sundhage remains upbeat and confident -- so much so that she regaled the fans with her own karaoke version of Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" after the final warm-up win over Mexico.
But she also said it has been a "bumpy road" to the finals, which started with a shock defeat of seismic proportions against Mexico and a scramble to qualify in a playoff against Italy. Since then, both Sweden and England have also inflicted defeats on the top-ranked Americans to leave critics wondering if this team is going to be good enough when it matters.
As talented midfield player Carli Lloyd admitted: "The rest of the world is closing the gap, and we will need more than just our usual determined, feisty spirit."
Nevertheless, despite a somewhat slavish devotion to the 4-4-2 formation, the U.S. team does have plenty of weapons to unleash. For starters -- powerful striker Abby Wambach. She has hit nine goals in 12 matches over the past two World Cups, and every defense will fear her.
And there is some lively attacking support from the improving Amy Rodriguez, Lauren Cheney (who scored a blockbuster goal in the send-off win over Mexico) and quick, incisive young Californian Alex Morgan.
Heather O'Reilly will be one of the most dangerous wide players in Germany, while guitar-playing, set-piece specialist Megan Rapinoe is also a threat.
For the U.S., the problems could come in central midfield, where despite the class of playmaker Lloyd and experienced anchor Shannon Boxx, opposition teams may outnumber them by playing three players against the U.S.'s two in the engine room. That was how England outthought and outplayed the Americans when they faced off in London in April. Sundhage's ability to be flexible to counter that particular problem may be crucial in the knockout rounds.
Meanwhile, the defense -- marshaled by captain Christie Rampone, in her fourth World Cup -- looks solid enough. It helps, of course, that the U.S. has probably the best keeper in the world in Hope Solo, who seems to have fully recovered from career-threatening shoulder surgery.
Overall, I expect another strong showing from the U.S., which has never been outside the top three at five World Cups so far. The Americans are more than capable of maintaining that impressive run.
What about the U.S.'s opposition?
Germany, winner of the past two World Cups, is my idea of a hot favorite playing before sellout crowds on home soil -- even if Birgit Prinz, the all-time leading scorer in the Women's World Cup, may be on the slide. If it all goes to form, we'll be treated to a Germany versus U.S. semifinal.
Brazil has the world's best player, Marta, whose feints, flicks and fantasy football will illuminate the event. Her strike partner Christiane is top class, too. Yet, strangely enough, the Brazilians have yet to win a major women's tournament despite appearing in the last three big finals. It would hardly be a shock if they stop being the bridesmaids this time around.
I rate France as a dangerous outsider, judged on the technical quality shown by Lyon, the team which provides the nucleus of the national side. Lyon won the European Champions League this season.
England, which has the superb Kelly Smith pulling the strings, is improving fast and should be too good for Japan and Mexico in Group B.
The likes of Sweden and North Korea, both in the United States' group, are hard-to-beat sides, though unlikely winners.
Canada, despite nearly losing its bright Italian coach in a row with the federation, is another side that could cause problems. The team is led by a world star in Christine Sinclair.
Colombia's 17-year-old Yoreli Rincon is another likely breakout talent.
All in all, this should be the best Women's World Cup yet. There is no doubt Germany has embraced the event in a major way, as ticket sales are soaring. There will be few easy games even for the fancied sides, and watch out for some surprises.
Ian Darke is a commentator for ESPN. You can reach him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/iandarkeespn.