USA’s World Cup hopes on line in Italy

The U.S. women’s soccer team is getting ready to face Italy in a

playoff for the World Cup.

The Americans were forced into the playoff when they were upset

by Mexico in the semifinals. The U.S. then beat Costa Rica in the

third-place game and advanced to the playoff against Italy.

“I doubt this team is going to roll over,” said U.S. forward

Abby Wambach. “They’re going to fight to the bitter end and I think

they’re going to give us a run for our money.”

Italy hosts the opening leg in Padua, near Venice, on Saturday.

The other match in the total-goals series is scheduled for Nov. 27

near Chicago in Bridgeview, Ill.

“International games nowadays you can’t take anything for

granted if you don’t put away your chances,” U.S. coach Pia

Sundhage told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “Of course we

wanted to qualify directly, but we didn’t and we’ve had to adjust

our plan. There’s been a lot of discussion back and forth about

what we should and shouldn’t do and that’s the beauty of the

international games – that you never know.”

The top-ranked Americans won the 1991 and 1999 World Cups and

the 2008 Olympics but will need to beat the 11th-ranked Azzurri to

gain the final berth in the 16-team tournament next year in

Germany.

The United States beat Italy 2-0 twice in 2008, with Wambach

scoring both goals in the second match.

“I remember them to be very scrappy players, very emotional

players, and they’ve got some players that can do really great

things with the ball,” said Wambach, who has scored 16 goals in 16

games this year.

“Their striker, No. 9 (Patrizia Panico), she’s kind of their

heart. I think how she goes, their team goes,” said Wambach,

perhaps aware of the Italy captain’s 87 goals in 159

internationals. “Also No. 8 (Melania Gabbiadini), she’s a very,

very fast and talented flank player. On their backline, they’ve got

a very strong center back that can head away many balls in the

air.”

The Americans are also familiar with Italy goalkeeper Anna Maria

Picarelli, who played at Pepperdine University in California.

The Italy men’s squad is known for its lock-down style

“catenaccio” defense. According to Sundhage, the women are not much

different.

“They have a similar culture,” said Sundhage, who hopes to

overcome the Italians’ defensive schemes with athleticism. “We will

last for 90 minutes for sure and we are a little bit faster and a

little bit stronger than they are.”

Italy coach Pietro Ghedin was an assistant coach with the

Azzurri men’s squad at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups and 2000

European Championship, but he won’t accept the “catenaccio”

label.

“We scored a bundle of goals in qualifying, so you can’t call us

‘catenacciari,”‘ he said. “We’re playing to win.”

Italy is wary of Wambach, but isn’t focusing strictly on the

U.S. top scorer.

“We know she’s a great player, but it’s not just her – the

entire team is great, the entire entourage,” Ghedin said. “We

realize how tough a challenge awaits us. Because America is

America. They’re still No. 1 – unfortunately.”