USA's World Cup opponents drawn
And the U.S. thought it was rough getting to the Women's World Cup.
The two-time world champions wound up with what could be the toughest group at next summer's tournament, drawing North Korea, Colombia and Sweden in Group C on Monday.
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 in the group stage, with No. 8 France and No. 9 Canada joining Nigeria in Group A.
"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 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."
Japan and Brazil are the other two seeded teams. The World Cup will be played June 26 to July 17 at nine sites in Germany.
The Americans are the world's top-ranked team and defending Olympic champion, and have lost only two games since the 2007 World Cup. Yet they were the last team to qualify for the 16-nation tournament, forced into a home-and-home playoff against Italy after being stunned by Mexico in the semifinals of regional qualifying.
The Americans beat the Italians 1-0 on Saturday to win the playoff on 2-0 aggregate.
"That was something really good for us," defender Ali Krieger said. "We've come together more as a team and on the field, we're going to fight more as a team. We know what we want."
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.
The North Koreans have been impressive at the youth level, winning the Under-20 World Cup in 2006 and the Under-17 World Cup in 2008. North Korea was the runner-up to the Americans at the 2008 U-20 World Cup, with one of the U.S. goals coming from Alex Morgan, who scored in the first playoff game against Italy.
"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 in Sinsheim and finish group play four days later in Wolfsburg against Sundhage's native Sweden. Sundhage scored 71 goals in 146 appearances for Sweden from 1974-96, including four as Sweden won the bronze medal at the inaugural World Cup in 1991.
"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 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. The two-time defending champion also plays France and Nigeria, which it recently beat 8-0 in an exhibition.
"They will be a different team next year," Germany coach Silvia Neid said 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 won't see 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 earlier 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."