MONTCLAIR, N.J. Top of the world and underdogs, to boot.
The U.S. women are accustomed to being No. 1. Despite that lofty ranking and gold medals from the last two Olympics, the Americans wont be the favorite when the Womens World Cup kicks off June 26. Germany, which has won the last two world titles and will be hosting the three-week event, is the odds-on choice.
And Brazil led by Marta, the worlds best player will be just as strong a contender.
That merely ramps up the U.S. teams eagerness to get going and winning.
If we are at our best, there is not a team in the world that can beat us, and we believe that, said star forward Abby Wambach, who will be playing on her third World Cup squad. Germany feels that way, too.
Everyone has the final game on our minds, and winning it, but we cant skip any steps to get there.
Those steps include a difficult opening group of Sweden, Colombia and North Korea, which the Americans will face June 28 in their opener.
Its more true now than ever that any team can beat any other team, Wambach said. You can see that in the Mexico game and against England. They proved that.
Did they ever at the Americans expense, too.
Qualifying for the World Cup always has been a foregone conclusion for the United States, which won the inaugural tournament in 1991 and again won in memorably historic fashion as host in 1999. But a stunning defeat against Mexico a nation that had a 0-24-1 record against the Americans before a 2-1 win in Cancun last November sent Pia Sundhages team into a home-and-home series with Italy just to get into the tournament.
The Americans survived that and seemed back on track this year with impressive wins at events in China and Portugal.
Then came a 2-1 defeat at England, a match in which the English, another opponent the Americans normally dominate, generally controlled play.
Thats a sign of how strong the sport has become, said U.S. captain Christie Rampone, a newcomer on the iconic 1999 team and now, at 35, heading into her fourth World Cup. International teams have more money invested and more of a commitment to womens soccer. The speed of play, the technical side of the game, it all has improved and so has the competition level.
Theres not a team out there you can overlook. The game is more demanding. You have to make decisions quicker and read the game faster because of the speed everyone is playing at. If you are not locked in and focused, whoever you are playing, you almost have to be thinking three steps ahead, when before you could get away with one or two.
The next step for the Americans is Sundays farewell match with Mexico at Red Bull Arena. The team is practicing this week in New Jersey with an eye more on fine-tuning and staying healthy than any sort of vengeance.
Besides, Rampone said, the players know better than to concentrate on anything but getting ready for the World Cup. From defenders Rampone and Heather Mitts to Wambach up front to midfielders Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd and Heather OReilly, there are enough veterans around to keep everyone, particularly the dozen World Cup rookies, headed in the right direction toward Germany.
Weve faced a lot of adversity, and weve had experience dealing with all kinds of things with losses or how to fix playing a bad half, Rampone said. Once we get to Germany and we have fresh legs and minds, I think well be able to just play soccer.