US Women's Soccer On Track For Success

CLEVELAND (AP) -- Coach Greg Ryan believes the U.S. women's soccer team is back where it belongs.

"It's good to be No. 1," Ryan said Friday after a light practice on the eve of the Americans' opening match in a six-game series of exhibitions leading up to the World Cup in September.

The United States will play China on Saturday night. The Americans won two previous meetings early this year, but that was before the Chinese changed coaches and prior to the U.S. regaining the top ranking for the first time in nearly four years.

"Being No. 1 as a good thing," Ryan said. "We're a young team that needs to build confidence. This should help give it to us.

"We've got a lot of young and energetic players. That combination can be very effective. But we also know that China is very good. Each of these games the next couple months are important tests."

The first round of the World Cup in China will be the biggest hurdle, according to Ryan. The United States is in Group B with Nigeria, North Korea and Sweden.

"It is most definitely the toughest group," Ryan said. "We have three of the top five teams in the world. We're No. 1, Sweden is third and North Korea is fifth. I think North Korea is better than that, possibly deserving of second or third. It's going to be very challenging."

With a 20-0-3 record since losing to Germany on penalty kicks in the 2006 Algarve Cup final, Ryan intends to use the exhibitions to refine what is going right rather than experiment.

"Barring injuries, there's not going to be many changes," he said. "We have a set style and want to reinforce it."

While a few women will be playing for a spot on the final roster of 21, Ryan's philosophy of playing strong team defense makes roles easily interchangeable.

"It's all about Greg's system," said assistant coach Bret Hall, back in Cleveland where he played pro indoor ball 20 years ago. "This team really is unselfish. We've got midfielders who run like crazy, experienced goalkeepers and a great group that brings out the best in each other."

China, ranked No. 11 worldwide, will test that defense under new coach Marika Domanski-Lyfors. She coached her native Sweden to a runner-up finish in the 2003 World Cup and is unbeaten in four games since taking over the Chinese side this spring.

"They play a wide-open attacking game," Ryan said. "Instead of having eight players back, they'll keep only four or five back and send everybody else on the attack."

The Americans fell from their top ranking with a stunning 3-0 loss to eventual champion Germany in the 2003 World Cup semifinals. Several players remain from that team, including captain Kristine Lilly, who turns 36 next month.

"I'm still playing because I want to win another World Cup," said Lilly, who was part of the Americans' historic 1999 World Cup champions. "We were very disappointed four years ago.

"We're out to show that the American women are still the best."

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