U.S. opens its gold bid today with host squad

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The United States is an overwhelming favorite against Greece.

By Joseph White ~ The Associated Press

IRAKLION, Greece -- At the end of a workout under a searing sun at an old Greek stadium, captain Julie Foudy gathered the U.S. women's soccer team in a midfield huddle.

"Let's get this party started!" Foudy bellowed in a singsong voice.

The party that is the 2004 Olympic Games is indeed about to begin, with soccer kick-starting the festivities two days ahead of everything else.

The United States opens against Greece today on the island of Crete, one of eight games two days before the opening ceremony for a sport that has to start early to squeeze everything in.

"We've been ready for a month," goalkeeper Briana Scurry said. "We're very excited to see what we've got."

Most everyone knows what the United States has -- a deep, talented team determined to reclaim its supremacy after disappointing finishes at the 2000 Olympics and the 2003 World Cup.

Greece, however, is another matter. The soccer-mad country that so euphorically celebrated its surprising men's European Championship title last month barely recognizes the women's game.

The Greek women qualified only because they are the host country, and they've enlisted eight American players with Greek ancestry to help their cause. Three of them -- Eleni Benson from Connecticut, Walker Loseno from Seattle and Tanya Kalivis from New Jersey -- sat together at the athletes' hotel this week and told some interesting tales.

"Greeks were surprised that women can actually play soccer," Kalivis said.

"Women's feet are not made for soccer," Loseno said a taxi driver told her during a passionate discussion about women's place in Greek society.

Benson said one taxi driver wanted to arm-wrestle her and feel her muscles.

One of their Greek-born teammates had to sneak out of her home to play soccer as a kid. When the team tried to hold a soccer clinic for girls recently, only eight girls showed up -- but there were a lot of boys.

They've tried to bring American sports values to a Greek culture where everything -- including practices -- seems to start 10 minutes late. The Greeks counter that the Americans need to play with more passion, with "American heads and Greek hearts," Loseno said.

And what about their chances today against the two-time World Cup champions?

"Even getting this far is an achievement," Benson said diplomatically.

Needless to say, the U.S. team is the overwhelming favorite in the opener, but that hasn't stopped coach April Heinrichs from compiling a laundry list of concerns.

"Heat, humidity, fatigue, possible injuries," Heinrichs said. "It's a lot of issues to be concerned about, but nothing is more important than advancing."

In the unusual Olympic format, the Americans play three first-round games in seven days, while teams in the other groups play just twice. If the U.S. team takes a big early lead, look for Heinrichs to rest some of her veterans in the second half.

The two teams have been sharing the same hotel this week, but the U.S. players have generally kept their distance from competitors about whom they know very little.

"We kind of pretend they're not even there," forward Abby Wambach said.

Heinrichs planned to give a 45-minute scouting report Tuesday night, but she said the emphasis will be on executing her own game plan. Her players say the biggest hurdle will be the opening minutes, especially if there's a loud Greek crowd.

"Both teams kind of want to feel each other out," forward Mia Hamm said. "We're both going to be full of so much adrenaline and emotion because we're in the Olympic Games, we're playing the home team. The stadium is going to be spirited, as it should be."

The Americans are guarding against overconfidence going into a game in which their opponents have nothing to lose. Only a comfortable win will meet expectations, putting the pressure squarely on the U.S. players on a day when they have the Olympic spotlight all to themselves.

"We always look at pressure as a privilege," Foudy said. "And it's a good opportunity to showcase the sport."

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