Azzurre, indeed. Italy faces US for World Cup spot
As Europe's fifth-place team, Italy knew it would have to face a squad from the Caribbean or North or Central America for the final spot in next summer's women's World Cup. Mexico, perhaps. Or Costa Rica. Maybe even Canada.
Sorry, Azzurre, no such luck.
Thanks to a stunning upset in CONCACAF qualifying, it's the top-ranked and two-time world champion United States that Italy gets in the two-leg playoff, which begins Saturday in Padova, Italy.
''We've got a 10 percent chance of advancing,'' Italy coach Pietro Ghedin said.
It's not that Ghedin doesn't have confidence in his team. But the Americans are, and have been for two decades now, in a class above most of the rest of the world. The loss to Mexico in the semifinals of the CONCACAF qualifying tournament was only their second since the 2007 World Cup and first since the opening game of the Beijing Olympic tournament, where they rebounded to win the gold medal.
The U.S. has allowed only 26 goals in 60 games since coach Pia Sundhage took over in November 2007 and, before its loss to Mexico, hammered Haiti, Guatemala and Costa Rica by a combined score of 18-0. That's one less goal than the U.S. men's team has scored - all year.
''You have to admit that it was a bad game, but also you shouldn't look into it too much,'' Sundhage said of the Mexico loss. ''It's only one game. We lost, and that will be good for us because we'll win the next game.''
The playoff is a home-and-home series, with the second leg Nov. 27 at Toyota Park, home of the Chicago Fire, in Bridgeview, Ill. The winner is determined by total goals, with away goals counting double if the teams finish with equal goals.
The U.S. has won eight of its last 10 games against Italy. Under Sundhage, the Americans are 20-1-2 against European teams.
''This is a World Cup game for us,'' Abby Wambach said. ''This isn't the Algarve Cup where we're training through a tournament. We're here to win this game, and not just by one goal.''
The U.S. loss to Mexico has been called one of the biggest upsets in the women's game. If Mexico and other less-successful teams can build on it, it might someday be seen as a game-changer, the day when the competitive balance in women's soccer shifted.
The U.S. (1991, '99), Norway (1995) and two-time defending champion Germany are the only teams that have won the World Cup. The U.S. has won all but one gold medal since the sport made its debut at the 1996 Olympics, with Norway winning in 2000.
In the meantime, knowing the Americans were beaten by a team they'd been 24-0-1 against might at least make them seem a little less invincible.
''I don't think that helps the Italians' confidence,'' U.S. captain Christie Rampone said. ''I don't think they were expecting the USA to come onto their turf and have to play us twice to get to the World Cup. If it gives them momentum, great, it gives us even more. It's one loss, but we've grown stronger.
''I think that's even more intimidating, facing a team that just lost after we've been so successful,'' she added. ''For us, we're going in with confidence and it doesn't really matter what they're thinking.''
Italy, ranked 11th in the world, was undefeated in winning its qualifying group. But it lost to France in the playoffs to determine Europe's first four qualifiers (Germany automatically qualified as host). It then beat Ukraine and Switzerland for the right to play CONCACAF's third-place team for the last of the 16 spots in the World Cup, which will be played June 26 through July 17.
''We didn't expect to meet the United States, and we're well aware that they present a tough obstacle,'' Ghedin said. ''But we're not starting off defeated. We're going to give everything we have on the pitch, all the energy that brought us to this point. This is our last shot.''
As it is for the Americans.
''The one thing we've been focusing a lot of attention on is this is an opportunity for us,'' Wambach said. ''In a World Cup, when you lose you don't get another opportunity or a chance. We're very thankful and grateful for our second chance, and we don't want to throw the opportunity away.''