Today’s Women’s World Cup Group A game between North Korea and the United States in Columbus, Ohio, has a little more at stake than your average soccer game — at least for the Koreans.
A victory would make them national heroes, but that added incentive may not be enough to upset the powerful Americans. The North Korean team struggled in the second game of Group A play, Thursday’s 1-0 loss to Sweden, when its midfield lacked creativity and didn’t attack.
Meanwhile, the United States also has plenty of motivation. With a win, the Americans would lock up a spot in the quarterfinals against Norway on Wednesday at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. A loss by a large margin and a big win by Sweden over Nigeria in the other Group A game could keep the United States out of the next round.
“We know what they do and their tendencies, system and style,” U.S. coach April Heinrichs said. “But what we don’t know is how they are going to match up against us or what they might do differently.”
The North Koreans are fast on the flanks, defend well, and have a world-class goal scorer in Ri Kum-suk, but they lack experience against world soccer powers.
Against the Swedes, the North Koreans manufactured just one shot in the first half and finished with just two shots on goal for the match. Touted as a physical, hard-charging side, the team was outmuscled by the Swedes, who had a 24-11 edge in fouls.
“You can expect a very organized, quick and technical team,” U.S. midfielder Kristine Lilly said. “That’s what teams from Asia are like. We played them in 1999, and every team from that World Cup is better, so I’m sure they have improved as well. I’ve heard a lot of good things about them.”
North Korea (1-1) gave the United States (2-0) a battle in the first round of the 1999 World Cup, holding the eventual champions scoreless in the first half before losing 3-0.
Kum-suk scored 15 goals at the Asian championships, including both goals in the final. However, she has done little in the two games in this World Cup.
Instead, it has been the other Ri — Ri Hyang Ok — who has been North Korea’s goal scorer, getting two in a 3-0 opening victory over Nigeria.
“We respect all our opponents, but I don’t know if we are worried about it,” U.S. defender Kylie Bivens said. “We respect every team we play, especially a team that has beaten China, but we focus more on what we have to do to win the game.”
It’s the North Koreans who have to match up with the Americans, not the other way around. The defending champs have outscored their opponents 8-1 in two games. Star forward Mia Hamm, who is playing in her last World Cup, is at the top of her game and has two goals and four assists.
Blessed with quality depth at every position, Heinrichs switched her alignment from a 4-3-3, which she used in the opener against Sweden, to a 4-4-2 formation in Thursday’s 5-0 rout of Nigeria.
“When you have world-class players like we do, we are getting closer to being able to make changes without it taking three games for the players to get used to the system or having it unsettle the team,” Heinrichs said.