For many observers, USA have already earned the right to be regarded as the team to beat at New Zealand 2008. The Americans' pedigree in women's football was always going to see them ranked among the leading contenders, of course, but it is the manner in which they have prepared and qualified for the tournament that has really caught the eye.
The first indication of their potential came in Auckland at January's Future Stars competition, when hosts New Zealand and Australia were effortlessly brushed aside by Kazbek Tambi's side en route to a 3-2 final victory over Germany. If that was impressive, their form in the CONCACAF preliminary competition was positively awe-inspiring; a triumphant qualifying campaign yielding 29 goals to just two conceded.
Where Tambi's team differ from their senior counterparts is in their commitment to combine substance with style, sticking steadfastly to a slick pass-and-move philosophy that contrasts sharply with the more direct, physical approach for which the US have traditionally been renowned. As Tambi himself says: "We are not just looking for physically outstanding athletes, but players who have tremendous knowledge and creativity and can play great soccer."
Before travelling to Trinidad and Tobago for the CONCACAF Women's U-17 Championship, Tambi took his charges to watch the US men take on Argentina at New York's Giants Stadium. "It was a friendly game, but there was such a high level of intensity out there," he said. "We want our kids to come out every single day with that same kind of intensity."
Tambi certainly got his wish once the competitive action began as his side ruthlessly raced to the top of their finals section with emphatic victories over eventual runners-up Costa Rica (6-0), El Salvador (9-0) and hosts T&T (9-1). A semi-final against Mexico was never going to be easy, however, and USA needed to dig deep to emerge with a hard-fought win, Crystal Dunn heading home a dramatic injury-time winner to secure a place at New Zealand 2008.
With Costa Rica shocking Canada in the other semi, a repeat of the lop-sided group-stage meeting was widely expected when the two sides renewed hostilities. As it was, while the Ticas did offer stiffer resistance in the final, goals from Kristen Mewis, Courtney Verloo and a Tani Costa double sealed a comfortable 4-1 win for the US along with the title of CONCACAF champions.
As a player, Kazbek Tambi played for New York Cosmos during their final NASL season in 1984, and then captained the club during their post-NASL international schedule in 1985. He also played professionally for New Jersey Eagles and Minnesota Strikers, and represented USA at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. In 1998, Tambi was named assistant coach of the men's team at Seton Hall University, an institution at which he also went on to graduate in law, a profession he now combines with his coaching duties. The 46-year-old has also enjoyed a long association with women's football and spent three years as head coach of the W-League outfit New Jersey Stallions between 2002 and 2004. He was appointed to head up USA's U-16 and U-17 women's teams in June 2005 and remains a respected figure at Seton Hall, where he currently coaches the university's women's team.
Players to watch
Much hype already surrounds the Mewis sisters, Kristen and Samantha, who combined for six goals in four qualifying games and are already drawing comparisons with USA greats of the past. The intuitive link-up play between these siblings and midfield partners is sure to be an intriguing feature of the Americans' play, as will the inventive and incisive style of star striker Courtney Verloo. Strong, skilful and clinical in front of goal, the Oregon youngster scored six and set up another four during her side's preliminary campaign and has quickly been singled out as a star of the future.
What they said...
"It's hard to say two or three years from now who's going to be the next Mia Hamm. My hope is that we're going to have several future Mia Hamms. I'm really excited about this group. It's a very highly-motivated group, a very talented group and their dream is the same as mine," USA coach Kazek Tambi.