U.S. women's soccer training heating up

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Just beyond the glide path of the international airport, across the street from the barking German shepherd and atop the neatly trimmed Bermuda grass virtually simmering in the midday sun, Megan Rapinoe laced corner kick after corner kick toward the goal on the U.S. women's soccer team's practice field Thursday.

Abby Wambach maneuvered around a fake yellow plastic defender stationed in the penalty box and headed the ball high over the cross bar. She wasn't pleased, yelling her name disappointedly into the blue sky. The previous volley off her forehead had nestled into the back of the net.

Very soon, those will count for everything.

Just two months from the start of the FIFA Women's World Cup in Germany, the top-ranked U.S. women continue to cook down a roster of 29 invitees to 21 players who will attempt to win the country's third title. Fourth-year coach Pia Sundhage has gathered a mix of veterans, many of whom won Olympic gold in China in 2008, and younger college players for a unique three-week camp during which many on the team leave on weekends to play for their Women's Professional Soccer clubs.

"It's healthy competition," Sundhage said. "But there is some stress there. I can feel it."

Leaving on weekends to fulfill professional commitments, which all players do except those staying in West Palm Beach for a magicJack game, only adds to that stress.

"It's a little bit hectic, a lot of travel. I have a game on Sunday in Boston, and I'll be leaving for it on Saturday, which is not ideal," said midfielder Heather O'Reilly, who plays professionally for Sky Blue FC. "It's a little bit hectic, but I think we have our eyes on the prize and it's worth it, and all those other details we just figure out."

Sundhage said allowing her players to honor their WPS commitments is wise for now because "soccer is about feelings and it's about making decisions and they can do that with the clubs." She will restrict them to their international duties as the final World Cup tuneups approach.

"We need to stay together in order to compete for the gold medal," Sundhage said. "I have so much respect for the international level, so staying together is crucial."

For now they sweat together in black practice uniforms in West Palm Beach, a site chosen to simulate a German summer.

While Sundhage and many of her players temper their optimism about winning their first World Cup title since 1999 with caution -- citing the ever-improving quality of international competition, the need, the coach said, to "stay humble" and the vagaries of FIFA rankings -- Wambach is decidedly more greedy. And blunt. This team, she said, is good enough to win the tournament. And it should.

"Anything less would be a disappointment for us," said Wambach, who has a team-high 117 goals in 150 international appearances. "We know it's not going to be easy. We know we'll probably have to go through some bumps in the road to get there, but it's not what happens, it's how you deal with it. We learned a lot from the loss against Mexico, the loss against England, and I think moving forward we've got to believe in each other, be healthy and move forward."

O'Reilly is helping to hoist expectations high too.

"I think we have a very high standard around here," she said. "I think anything except for gold will be a little bit disappointing."

The United States will take a different route offensively this time. Wambach's absence from the Olympics because of a broken leg forced the team to diversify while also honing a defensive effort led by midfielder Carli Lloyd that carried the team to the gold medal. Even with Wambach healthy, Sundhage has slowly transformed the offensive approach, O'Reilly said, into one stressing "a little bit more possession, a little bit more patience and a little sort of unpredictability and spring attacks out of our possession play.

"Before, a lot of our offense was a ball over the top or a cross to Abby," O'Reilly said. "A lot of times, you ask anyone and they will say they know how the U.S. will play. This World Cup, I think we want to impress people and surprise people."

The ability to do so, or at least try, has become a necessity simply because the world has caught up to the Americans. The team needed a two-game playoff last fall against Italy -- which it won 2-0 on aggregate goals -- to advance to the 16-team World Cup. A November loss to 22nd-ranked Mexico in CONCACAF qualifying, which forced the playoff with Italy, and a defeat on April 2 to 10th-ranked England illustrated, Lloyd said, "that just having that U.S. mentality -- that aggressive will to win -- isn't good enough anymore. The gap has closed too much."

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