US trying to stave off early elimination vs Brazil

The U.S. is the No. 1 team in the world, a two-time World Cup

champion and three-time Olympic gold medalist.

The only number that matters right now, however, is zero.

As in, the number of World Cups the current team has won.

”I take it personally that I haven’t won one,” Abby Wambach

said Saturday, ”and I’ll be heartbroken if we walk away without

one.”

The Americans better get into gear then. After losing a group

stage match for the first time at the World Cup, they must play old

foe Brazil in the quarterfinals Sunday, a matchup most had penciled

in for next weekend’s final. Lose, and not only will the Americans

be going empty-handed again, it will be their earliest exit ever at

the World Cup, a tournament they last won in 1999.

The United States is the only team that’s made the semifinals at

each of the previous five World Cups.

”We have the confidence and the faith in each other as a team.

We believe that if we do this together, we can beat anybody,”

Wambach said. ”We have our hands full. But I still believe, in the

end, we have the best chance of winning.”

History would seem to back that up. You have to go back more

than a decade, to the Algarve Cup in the spring of 2001, to find

the last time the United States lost back-to-back games. It’s been

more than four years just since they failed to win consecutive

games.

The U.S. has been uncharacteristically inconsistent of late,

however, losing four games since November alone. Granted,

goalkeeper Hope Solo started only one of those losses, and not even

Iker Casillas would have stood much of a chance against Lisa

Dahlkvist’s penalty or Nilla Fischer’s deflected free kick in the

2-1 loss to Sweden on Wednesday night.

But the Americans don’t do losses. They usually go years without

a single one – like the two year-plus unbeaten streak they had

going before being stunned by Mexico in regional qualifying.

”It doesn’t matter if the U.S. has had some bad results in the

last six months,” said Marta, Brazil’s dazzling playmaker. ”It’s

Brazil-U.S., a big game. It’s special.”

Just like its men’s team, Brazil’s squad is loaded with

spectacular players. Marta, the FIFA player of the year five times

running, is so gifted with the ball it looks as if she’s got it on

a string, creating goals out of thin air. Cristiane has scored

twice so far, once from the penalty spot. Brazil’s unique 3-5-2

formation presents all kinds of challenges.

For all their star power, though, the Brazilians have never won

the title at a major tournament. They lost to the Americans in the

last two Olympic finals, and were runners-up to Germany at the 2007

World Cup.

And their track record against the Americans is less than

impressive. The U.S. is 23-2-2 all-time against Brazil, with only

one loss since January 1998. All but four of those matches since

1998 ended without the U.S. conceding, while Brazil managed a grand

total of eight goals.

”Those defeats don’t matter,” Brazil coach Kleiton Lima said

through a translator. ”They rise up with this experience. They are

much better in this moment.”

Much has been made about the teams’ last meeting at the World

Cup. Brazil’s 4-0 rout in the semifinals was the worst defeat in

U.S. history and led to a meltdown worthy of a soap opera.

Solo blasted then-coach Greg Ryan’s decision to bench her, even

though she’d had three clean sheets in a row. Ryan responded by

kicking Solo off the team. Less than a month later, Ryan was

essentially fired.

Since then, however, the Americans have won the teams’ last four

meetings without conceding. Solo’s save on Marta’s point-blank shot

in the 72nd minute of the 2008 Olympic final was stunning, and

should be a must-see for every goalkeeper.

”Brazil, they have so much to prove. They have best player in

world but have yet to win a major championship,” Solo said. ”Do I

think Marta’s time will come? Certainly. She deserves that. With

that said, I do think we overall have the team to win it. Our

structure, our defense, our midfield, the fact that we have now

implemented an ability to be creative on the attack, I think we’re

the better team. But it’s all about executing it on game day.”

The Americans’ biggest weakness in this tournament has been

finishing. They had a whopping 20-9 advantage in shots against

Sweden, including a 6-5 edge in shots on goal, and still couldn’t

get the equalizer. They missed numerous other chances in the first

two games, as well.

Brazil is the only team that has yet to concede a goal, and the

Americans know they can’t afford to squander chances against the

stingy Erika, Rosana and the like. They are convinced, as they have

been all tournament, that this next game is when things turn

around.

”We’re fit, we’re strong and we don’t give up,” Carli Lloyd

said. ”That’s one of greatest things we have about this team.

We’ve been doing some really good things, creating a lot of

chances, and I think the goals are going to come.”

If not, the Americans know they’ll have let a golden opportunity

pass – and not just to win a title.

The World Cup in Germany has been an overwhelming success.

Several games, including Sunday’s quarterfinal, have been sold out,

and the Americans are all over TV back home. But that interest is

likely to drop off in a hurry if the Americans go home early.

”We want to prove to the pioneers of the game in our country

… that their efforts were worth it,” Wambach said. ”We’re

participating in something that’s huge. Very few times does the

spotlight shine so bright on women’s soccer, and we want to prove

to everybody around the world that we have a product and that

product is worth watching.”