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US women set for France

Associated Press / July 13, 2011

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MOENCHENGLADBACH, Germany - The Americans feel just fine, thank you, not tired a bit. The high they were on after that epic Brazil game? That’s so yesterday.

The US women are one game away from reaching their first World Cup final since 1999 - the last time they won soccer’s biggest prize - and the only thing on their minds now is beating France.

“Losing is not an option,’’ Abby Wambach said yesterday. “We want to win this thing, and France is standing in our way right now.’’

The Americans are the top-ranked team in the world and defending Olympic gold medalists, yet they were almost afterthoughts when the tournament began two weeks ago. Two-time defending champion Germany was considered the heavy favorite, sure to get a boost playing on home soil. Then there was Brazil, runner-up at the last three major tournaments and led by Marta, FIFA’s player of the year five years running.

And the US? They had to win a playoff with Italy just to get here, and they’d been uncharacteristically inconsistent with three losses in a five-month span.

But the Germans are now spectators, stunned by Japan in the quarterfinals. Brazil is gone, too, losing to the Americans in a penalty shootout in one of the most exciting games ever at the World Cup, men’s or women’s. And the US? They’re still playing, and they go into today’s semifinal with more than a touch of swagger.

“We have what it takes,’’ Wambach said. “It’s just a matter of putting it all together.’’

The biggest uncertainty for the Americans isn’t their fitness, it’s their backline. Rachel Buehler has started all but one game the last two years, and her bruising style of defense has been vital. But she’s suspended for the semifinal after getting a red card for taking down Marta in the box in the 65th minute Sunday.

While US coach Pia Sundhage wouldn’t say who will play in Buehler’s place, Becky Sauerbrunn was working with the starters during training yesterday.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to play with her [with the WPS’s magicJack] so we’re very connected that way,’’ said Christie Rampone, the US captain and its other central defender. “Becky and I feel confident together.’’

With Japan ranked fourth in the FIFA standings and Sweden just one place below it, the semifinal at Frankfurt’s Commerzbank Arena should make for an open and unpredictable match.

In Japan, the team’s rise at the championships and its stunning upset of the host nation and defending champion Germany has brought relief from the pain of the tsunami.

The country has been battered by dozens of strong aftershocks since the strongest quake in Japanese history.

Their success on the global stage has turned into a bigger hit than baseball or sumo wrestling and the media dominance of a woman’s sport is a huge surprise in itself.

The players also get something in return, Sasaki said. Seeing how the Japanese people prevail despite such adversity is a mental boost.

“The images of these people gave us strength,’’ Sasaki said after the win over Germany.

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