- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2003

The U.S. women’s national team begins defense of its World Cup title against Sweden Sept.21 at RFK Stadium.

FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, announced the draw yesterday for the fourth Women’s World Cup, Sept.20 to Oct.12, and placed the U.S. women in the most difficult opening round group.

The top-ranked U.S. women are joined in GroupA by world No.5 Sweden, No.7 North Korea and No.23 Nigeria. The Americans’ second game in group play will be at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field Sept.25, where they play five-time African champion Nigeria. The U.S. team concludes group play Sept.28 against reigning Asian champion North Korea at Columbus Crew Stadium in Ohio. The top two teams in each group advance to the quarterfinals.

“There are a lot of expectations on our team now,” U.S. team coach April Heinrichs said. “Sweden is a team on the rise. The Nigerian athleticism you just don’t see in the women’s game. North Korea we know very little about and haven’t seen them in three years. With four of the best seven or eight teams in the world, it’s a very challenging group.”

FIFA unveiled its world rankings on Wednesday and named the U.S. women the top team to coincide with the World Cup draw. Group B, the second-most difficult group, also has three top-10 ranked teams — No.2 Norway, No.6 Brazil, No.9 France and No.24 South Korea.

However, FIFA’s rankings didn’t spread parity across the draw. Germany, Group C’s top seed, and Group D top seed China escaped without having another top-10 team in their respective groups. Group C consists of Germany, Canada, Japan and Argentina, while Group D is comprised of China, Ghana, Australia, and Russia.

“If you look at groups A and B, two to four really good teams will go home without advancing,” Heinrichs said.

RFK will play host to three doubleheaders beginning with the U.S. women and Brazil-South Korea on Sept.21. Most of Group B’s opening round play will take place at RFK, with Brazil playing all three opening-round matches at the District stadium.

After South Korea, Brazil, which features former Washington Freedom forward Pretinha, will play top-seed Norway Sept.24 and France Sept.27. In the other Group B game in the District, France plays South Korea Sept.24. In Group C action, top-seeded Germany plays Argentina on Sept.27 at RFK.

The U.S. women’s grouping is almost identical to its 1999 first-round group. When the Americans defeated China on penalty kicks in 1999 to win their second World Cup, they opened with Denmark, followed by Nigeria and North Korea. This time, Sweden takes the place of Denmark, which did not qualify for the World Cup.

“If there is a blessing in this draw, we play teams later in the tournament that we’re less familiar with,” Heinrichs said.

Looking ahead, the U.S. team probably will need to win Group A play to avoid drawing dangerous Norway in the quarterfinals Oct.1 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.

If the U.S. women win Group A and Norway holds its top seeding in Group B, then the Americans most likely would face Brazil, an easier opponent, in the quarterfinals.

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