Hands down, Group B figures to be the toughest in the women's World Cup.
BEIJING (AP) -Hands down, Group B figures to be the toughest in the women's World Cup.
Three of the sport's five top-ranked teams are in the group - the Untied States (No. 1), Sweden (No. 3) and North Korea (No. 5). Defending African champion Nigeria is ranked only 24, which belies its strength.
The Americans have won two of the previous four world titles - 1991 and '99 - and were bitterly disappointed losing to eventual champion Germany 3-0 four years ago in the semifinals in California. Sweden was the runner-up four years ago to Germany, carrying its own disappointment to China.
Though North Korea has yet to advance beyond the group stage of a World Cup, this might be the year for Asia's top-ranked team. And don't underrate Nigeria, historically Africa's best side.
By an odd coincidence, the group is identical to 2003 when all four were pooled together with the Americans and Swedes advancing.
There was some luck involved in the draw, and also some shenanigans by the world governing body FIFA.
Minutes before the draw - and without explanation - North Korea was place arbitrarily into Group B. FIFA declined to fully explain why, but the positioning guarantees that host-team China cannot face archrival North Korea before the semifinals. After North Korea was placed in Group B, the Americans, Swedes and Nigerians were drawn by lot into the group.
"I just didn't understand it. I was confused,'' Ryan said at the time.
The group opens Sept. 11 in Chengdu with the United States facing North Korea and Nigeria playing Sweden.
The Americans have a rich World Cup history, and this time they'll introduce 12 players who've never participated on women soccer's top stage. Forward Kristine Lilly and goalkeeper Briana Scurry are the only players from all the glory years that included two World Cup titles and Olympic gold medals in '96 and '04.
The United States will play an offensive style built around the penetrating runs and passes of Lilly, Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd, and the finishing of Lilly and Abby Wambach. Defensively, the core of Kate Markgraf, Cristie Rampone and Cat Whitehill generally keeps opponents far from the net with Hope Solo likely to start in goal.
Where Ryan's 21-player squad can separate itself is on set plays, particularly on crosses to Wambach and Boxx. Possession and late-game depth and fitness could also be decisive.
"On a gut level, this team feels right,'' Wambach said. "It's the right 21 players heading into the world championship. All of our pistons are firing at the same time. ... That's all we can ask for going into the world championship.''
Ryan is unbeaten in 46 games (39 wins, 7 ties, 0 losses) since taking over the United States team early 2005. The only blemish is a penalty kick loss to Germany in the Algarve Cup. The game was 0-0 after regulation and extra time and, because it was decided on penalties, goes into the record books as a tie.
Sweden returns with many of same players from the runner-up finish four years ago. New coach Thomas Dennerby - he replaced Marika Domanski-Lyfors, who has taken over China - is trying to add more flexibility of the Swedish attack, mixing in 4-3-3 and 4-5-1 formations with the traditional 4-4-2.
The veteran team has several players with 100 appearances including two of the world's top strikers: Hanna Ljungberg and Victoria Svensson. Hanna Marklund, Malin Mostrom and Therese Sjogran also have 100 caps. Sweden also has a young, promising striker in Lotta Schelin.
"We know what we are capable of if the conditions are right,'' Ljungberg said.
North Korea is, of course, largely a mystery.
The side is coached by Kim Kwang Min and led by forward Ri Kum Suk, who will be playing in her third consecutive World Cup. Despite its high ranking, North Korea has yet to get past group play in the World Cup finals
"I'm not satisfied with what we have done last year,'' Ri said in an interview on FIFA's Web site. "We will work harder and try to step forward to be one of the top sides in the world.''
The team will include young talent from the side that won the 2006 Under-20 World Championship, hammering China 5-0 in the final in Moscow. They also beat Germany, Switzerland, Mexico, France and Brazil.
Nigeria won the African title last year for the fifth time. The Super Falcons have qualified for every World Cup finals tournament, but have yet to produce. Four years ago they lost three group games and failed to score.
Much of coach Effiom Ntiero's team is back from 2003 including Mercy Akide and Florence Omagbemi. The new face is striker Cynthia Uwak, and a key scoring threat is likely to be midfielder Perpetua Nkwocha.