N. Korea, Colombia, Sweden face U.S.

Updated: November 29, 2010, 6:03 PM ET
Associated Press

The United States wound up with what could be the toughest group at next summer's Women's World Cup, drawing North Korea, Colombia and Sweden on Monday.

The top-ranked Americans were the last team to qualify for the 16-nation tournament, beating Italy in a home-and-home playoff on Saturday after being stunned by Mexico in the semifinals of regional qualifying. Still, the U.S. is a top seed, as are two-time defending champion Germany, Japan and Brazil. The tournament will be played June 26 to July 17 at nine sites in Germany.

"It's good because it's a very strong group. That's the best thing that could happen to us," U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said Monday from the draw in Frankfurt, Germany. "That will be inspiring for us, the fact we're playing high-ranked teams like Sweden and North Korea and a new team Colombia, which will be so enthusiastic going into the World Cup."

Sweden is No. 4 in the latest world rankings while North Korea is sixth. Germany is the only other seeded team to draw two top-10 opponents, with No. 8 France and No. 9 Canada joining Nigeria in Group A.

The U.S. begins play June 28 against North Korea in Dresden, the fourth straight time the nations will meet in the group stage. The Americans beat the North Koreans 3-0 in 1999 and 2003, but tied 2-2 in 2007.

"At the time, we had a very experienced team, now we have a very young, inexperienced team and I am a little bit worried," North Korea coach Kim Kwang-min said through an interpreter. "Maybe we can win with our spirit. After the last World Cup, we went through a change of generations and it was successful."

The North Koreans have had impressive results at the youth level, winning the 2006 Under-20 and 2008 Under-17 World Cups. North Korea was the runner-up to the Americans at the 2008 Under-20 World Cup.

"The new team is very young and inexperienced, but very ambitious," Kim said. "We don't have high aims, but to do as well as we can."

The U.S. will face World Cup newcomer Colombia on July 2 and finish group play four days later against Sweden, the team Sundhage played for at the 1991 and '95 World Cups.

"It's just a little bit weird before and after," Sundhage said. "But during the game, it's like coaching against any team, actually."

The Americans won the World Cup in 1991 and 1999 and have finished no worse than third. They also are the defending Olympic champions and have won all but one gold medal since women's soccer was added to the Olympic program in 1996.

The Americans blamed much of their recent struggles on fatigue, with qualifying coming on the heels of the Women's Professional Soccer season. That shouldn't be as much of a factor next year, with the team getting December off before gathering in January in Los Angeles ahead of the Four Nations Tournament.

The Americans also should get a boost with the return of goalkeeper Hope Solo, who missed World Cup qualifying to have shoulder surgery.

"I think that when we get a little bit of rest, everybody can get their wits about them and come back to the drawing board and perform like we know we're capable of," forward Abby Wambach said Saturday. "Because we're honest with ourselves. We know that this isn't the way we normally play. ... But at the end of the day, I know that this team right now has a chance of winning the World Cup."

Germany begins the tournament June 26 in Berlin against Canada, the winner of North and Central America and the Caribbean qualifying. It also plays France and Nigeria, which it recently beat 8-0 in a friendly, in Group A.

"They will be a different team next year," Germany coach Silvia Neid of the Nigerians.

Japan will face New Zealand, Mexico and England in Group B, while 2007 runner-up Brazil drew Australia, former champion Norway and Equatorial Guinea in Group D.

The Americans cannot play Germany until at least the semifinals. The Germans beat the U.S. 3-0 in the 2003 semis but the Americans are 5-0-2 against the world's No. 2 team since, including a 3-2 victory in the Algarve Cup final this year.

"If you look at the bumpy road, I'll deal with anything. Regardless of what kind of teams we get, I'll look at it in a positive way," Sundhage said. "In (qualifying), we took things a little bit too for granted and it was good for us because now we can regroup and I think it will be a more cohesive team."

"I'm happy to know who we're playing," U.S. defender Ali Krieger said. "It's definitely going to be tough, but each group has really tough teams, really strong teams. We're not going to be looking ahead to the semifinal or final, we have to really focus on the group stage. "But because we have such a strong group, we're going to be very motivated to play well."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press