HANGZHOU, China – Coping with Brazil’s finesse is worry enough – the tricky feints, bicycle kicks and showy backheel passes.
The South Americans can also be downright rough, which is a flip side for the United States to deal with in Thursday’s Women’s World Cup semifinal.
“They’re not going to let us hold on to the ball very long,” American forward Heather O’Reilly said. “We’ll get it stripped or get our legs taken from under us. We need to keep the ball moving and bring our technical game, or else we’re going to pay for it.”
Coach Greg Ryan was more direct.
The United States defeated Brazil 2-0 three months ago in New York, and Ryan said the South Americans’ main tactic was fouling, “chopping our players down to break up the game’s rhythm.”
“I expect this game to be very physical,” he said. “Our girls will be prepared for it, but it was a very dirty game in June.”
The Brazilians won’t need much help at Dragon Stadium in Hangzhou, a capital of ancient China famed for West Lake, which is surrounded by low mountains and famous temples and pagodas.
Marta, FIFA player of the year in 2006, and Cristiane may be the best striker duo in women’s soccer.
They are supported by a cast of others up front – Formiga, Daniela and Maycon – and a street-soccer culture back home that breeds brash moves and flashy goals.
Marta didn’t play three months ago, and neither did American keeper Hope Solo. But many of the younger Americans did, and several were stunned by Brazil’s hard tackles – a growing feature of the women’s game.
“It was kind of an eye-opener for a lot of us younger players who haven’t played in a physical game like that,” said 23-year-old midfielder Lori Chalupny. “It was much more physical than any game I’d been involved in. We’re expecting a lot of the same this time around.”
Brazil picked up five yellow cards in the first half, and led 20-11 in fouls. The Americans led in everything else, capped by goals from their striking pair of Kristine Lilly and Abby Wambach.
Wambach has four in the World Cup, one behind tournament co-leaders Marta and Norway’s Ragnhild Gulbrandsen.
Undefeated in 51 games and seeking its third title to go with World Cups in ‘91 and ‘99, the U.S. team is a slight favorite to reach Sunday’s final in Shanghai against either defending champion Germany or Norway. They play today’s semifinal in Tianjin’s Olympic Center Stadium, site of some of next year’s soccer in the Beijing Olympics.
The No. 1-ranked United States has lost only one of 22 games to Brazil, but the last three have been close, including a 2-1 extra-time victory in the 2004 Olympic gold medal game, which Brazil probably deserved to win.