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This World Cup full of differences

Americans' goal remains the same

WASHINGTON -- The ponytailed hooligans are back in school. Giants Stadium is reserved for the helmetheads this month. When the erstwhile Babes of Summer take the field here tomorrow afternoon against Sweden, more than a third of RFK Stadium's 53,000 seats may be empty.

The World Cup of women's soccer, which kept the country enthralled four summers ago, has returned after being displaced from China because of the SARS epidemic. But this time, it's decidedly downsized and downbeat.

Instead of the Rose Bowl, the final will be held at the made-for-soccer Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., which seats an intimate 27,500. Instead of monopolizing the attention span of sporting America, the three-week event will be sharing it with the baseball playoffs, the NFL, and college football. In 1999, the World Cup was a cultural phenomenon. In 2003, it's a soccer tournament.

"This is a different team, a different atmosphere, different venues even," said Brandi Chastain, whose celebratory jersey-doffing was the Cup's signature moment last time. "You can't compare this year to 1999."

Yet the challenge is the same for the Americans, who are bidding to become the first team to win consecutive championships and are fielding largely the same squad that defeated China in a dramatic penalty-kick shootout.

Nine of those 11 starters are back, including Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy, and Joy Fawcett, all of whom are playing in their fourth Cup. But the bench is lined with eight new faces, most notably forward Abby Wambach, midfielders Aly Wagner and Shannon Boxx, and defender Cat Reddick. "We give the experience," said the 32-year-old Foudy, who's been wearing a USA jersey since she was 17, "and they give a freshness to the team."

Nobody has more experience than the Americans. Besides the quartet of four-timers, four others (Chastain, Tiffeny Milbrett, Tiffany Roberts, and Briana Scurry) are appearing in their third Cup, and four more in their second.

But that experience is a byproduct of age, and the US has a decidedly ripe roster (average age 27.5, with 2,200 combined caps), all but one of whose members is coming off a demanding WUSA campaign. "Our veteran players are exhausted," coach April Heinrichs admitted at last month's draw.

And the rest of the world, which used to be several goals' worth of skill and savvy behind the US, has been catching up. Norway, long their nemesis, dethroned the Americans at the Sydney Olympics. Eight of their 15 Cup rivals have beaten or tied them during the past quadrennium. "Looking beyond anyone -- that's death," mused Foudy.

The Swedes, unbeaten in a dozen matches this year (including a 1-1 draw with the US in March), present a large and immediate bump in the road back to the final. Hanna Ljungberg and Victoria Svensson are one of the top striker combos in the game, Malin Andersson and Malin Mostroem among the best midfielders, and Kristin Bengtsson an inspired defender in front of goalkeeper Caroline Jonsson.

"Let me tell you, Sweden are ready," Breakers coach Pia Sundhage declared yesterday on the tournament website. "It wouldn't surprise me if they make the final and even win the championship."

If the Americans don't win their group, they'll likely end up facing the Norwegians in the Foxborough quarterfinals, where a loss would be devastating. With the WUSA out of business for at least a year, if not forever, women's elite soccer can't wait until next summer's Olympics in Athens to get back on the radar screen.

So, now that Hurricane Isabel has blown out of town, the hosts say they're jacked up and eager to get to it. "Hey, this is the World Cup," Foudy said. "If you go into the World Cup and your juices are not flowing, you're dead. You've got no pulse."

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