GUANGZHOU, China, Jan 26 (AFP)
The US world champions reckon they will go into the China 2003 World Cup with a crop of women that is even better than the all-conquering side of two years ago.
Coach April Heinrichs said Saturday, on the eve of her side's final four-nations game in Guangzhou against arch-rivals China, that she was brewing the perfect mix of experience and youth in time for 2003.
"I'm confident that we can put together an outstanding team and perhaps the best team that's ever played for the United States of America. Our young players are very good," she said./p
"We're still in a little bit of a transition, bringing in new players and still relying on experienced players" such as veteran Kristine Lilly, who holds the world record of 229 international caps.
The enforced retirement of FIFA co-player of the century Michelle Akers last year has weakened the team. Heinrichs said "they're (veterans) still carrying the ship for us, but 18 months out, we're trying to blend both."
Asked whether the team could eclipse the US side that pulled off a stunning penalty shootout win at the 1999 World Cup against the Chinese on home soil, the coach said: "I think we can... I think our 2000 team (who lost in the Olympic final to Norway) was better than our 1999 team.
"I think our improvement from '99 to 2000 was great in a short span, and I think with another 18 months, and with our women's professional league still going strong, I think the 2003 team that qualifies for the World Cup hopefully will be the best team that ever played for the United States."
The US, however, have been disappointing in Guangzhou and are already out of the running for final success in the round-robin tournament.
Having come into the event on a high after a 7-0 demolition of Mexico in their first match of the year, they have failed to find the back of the net in their first two matches.
They followed up a single goal loss to Norway with a dour goalless draw against European champions Germany, whom they had thrashed 4-1 in the first match of the US Women's Cup last September aided by two goals from striker Mia Hamm.
Heinrich admitted the US were missing Hamm's firepower up front. The prolific centre forward, who last year became the first ever FIFA World Women's Player of the Year and who leads the international scoring charts with 129 goals in just 160 international appearances, is nursing a hamstring injury.
"The enforced layoff is probably very good for Mia in terms of her freshness for the game but we've missed her tremendously," the coach said.
Heinrich commented that 1995 World Cup winners Norway, the only side to have an overall winning record over the dominant US team -- 19 wins against 16 losses -- and the Chinese were likely to be their strongest challengers in the 2003 World Cup to be staged in China.
"The Chinese are a very good team. Their new players are as good or better than their older players. It's scary that they can replace players and not seem to have a dropoff."
She added that criticism from Chinese media directed at coach Ma Yuanan after China relinquished their Asian Crown to North Korea was unjustified.
"Ma's objective is to prepare a team 18 months from now -- not for the Asian Championships two months ago.
"If he wins this tournament, he should get a raise and he should be hired for 10 more years!"
With US chances of four-nations victory already dashed, Heinrichs, who captained her country to victory in the inaugural Women's World Cup in 1991, now has her sights on the Algarve Cup in March.
After that will come qualification for the main event and ultimately -- she hopes -- more World Cup glory in 2003.
Go USA Go !!!