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They just can't box her in

A breakout debut for US Cup rookie

PHILADELPHIA -- All week long, there were hints that the lineup might have a surprise or two. But Shannon Boxx? A 26-year-old rookie who'd never played an international match until this month? Starting in a World Cup opener? And scoring?

April Heinrichs, the US women's soccer team's straight-talking coach, had said she wouldn't hesitate to put any of her 20 players on the field. Then she did it, starting Boxx in the midfield and fellow Cup neophyte Abby Wambach up front, then bringing in defender Cat Reddick and midfielder Aly Wagner off the bench.

"They stepped out there and made an impact right away," said midfielder Kristine Lilly, a day after the Americans had dispatched Sweden, 3-1, in Washington to take their first step toward their third global title. "We've been talking about that for so long, it was great to finally witness it."

Thus did the golden guard begin changing after a dozen years, as Heinrichs brought the understudies onto the big stage and watched them perform with confidence and verve.

"That was my dream, to start in the opener of the World Cup," said the 23-year-old Wambach, who played a vigorous 56 minutes alongside Mia Hamm and Cindy Parlow.

Cracking this group, which has nine of 11 starters back from the 1999 team, is like getting a seat on the Supreme Court.

"They've been coming here day-in, day-out for 15 years," said Reddick, who stepped in at halftime after Brandi Chastain limped off with a broken bone in her right foot. "They've been there, done that.

"I was one of those girls who used to idolize them."

Now, with older veterans like Tiffeny Milbrett willing to come off the bench for the greater good, there is room for fresh faces, some of whom have been waiting several years for their chance.

"I've been left off a few rosters, and that's tough on your confidence," said Wambach, who'd played in only eight matches before this year. "But my mom said, `Abby, you've been left off the roster of the best team in the world.' "

With the Olympics coming up next summer and a mass exodus expected afterward, it was time to start working the next generation into the mix. Wambach, who was MVP of last month's WUSA final, roamed the box and elbowed aside Swedish defenders as if she were playing in her third Cup. "I'm not the type of person to be nervous and awestruck in front of 30,000 people," she declared.

Nor was Boxx, who played three WUSA seasons after a professional apprenticeship in Germany.

"I was more excited than nervous," said Boxx, who played all 90 minutes and scored the third goal on a blind header off a Hamm corner. "I'm around great players and they're going to make me better."

There was a time when newcomers to the US team were treated like sorority pledges. No longer.

"It's a very inclusive, very welcoming environment," said Chastain, who made a point of telling Reddick that she belonged on the squad. "At some point, you're going to have to count on somebody, so . . ."

With the oldest roster in Cup history and four players making their fourth appearance, the veterans understand that they'll be sharing time with the Wambachs and Wagners.

"In general, there's been good buy-in about what we're doing and everybody's role," said Heinrichs.

Starting Wambach had two clear advantages. It gave the Americans another big-and-tall alongside Parlow to knock heads with Sweden's physical defenders. It also put Wambach next to Hamm, her up-front partner with the Washington Freedom. "Abby and Mia have good chemistry together," observed Heinrichs. And because Boxx can more than hold her own in the midfield, it allowed Heinrichs to go with three forwards up front.

The "any of the 20" concept extends to the bench. Only two substitutes played in the Sydney Olympics, where the worn-down Americans lost the final in overtime to Norway.

On Sunday, Heinrichs used three -- Reddick for Chastain, Wagner for Parlow, and Milbrett (whose high-octane personality and 13 years of experience make her an invaluable reserve) for Wambach.

No other team in the tournament has the luxury of bringing a Milbrett, with 13 Cup matches and six goals on her resume, off the bench. Or mixing and matching its starting 11, depending on the rival.

For Thursday's match here against Nigeria, Heinrichs could go with Shannon MacMillan up front or start Wagner in the midfield.

"April has the hardest job in the world, to decide who'll start for each game," said Wambach.

But with six games in six cities in 22 days and Chastain likely sidelined for at least two weeks, Heinrichs will have ample minutes to go around and plenty of willing and able candidates to step in.

"We're going to need every single one of us to win," reckoned Lilly.

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