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Women's World Cup's one to watch

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Any discussion about the most successful team in women's soccer has to start with the numbers.

According to their Nike advertising slogan, the United States women's national team is not only The Greatest Team You've Never Heard Of but has also collectively missed out on 13 proms, 74 birthdays, 21 Thanksgivings and 989 boyfriends in the pursuit of sporting excellence.

The number crunching doesn't stop there. How about 331, the mind-blowing amount of international appearances captain Kristine Lilly has racked up? Or 37, which is how many undefeated matches the team has played in the past two years?

Heading into the Women's World Cup in China next week, though, all Lilly and her teammates are doing is looking out for No. 1.

That is their ranking in the current world standings, their spot in the list of tournament favorites, and the type of trophy the squad plans to return home with.

"We have worked our butts off to be one of the best," said Lilly, a 20-year veteran of international action. "Anything less than our ultimate goal of becoming champions would be a disappointment."

Confidence and spirit are the themes that run through this group of players, who, due to the current absence of a professional women's league in this country, operate much like a club.

That will change in 2009 with the arrival of a new seven-team professional league that hopes to enjoy more success than the ill-fated WUSA. That league tried to capitalize on increased interest spawned by the Americans' 1999 World Cup triumph (and Brandi Chastain's shirt-peeling celebrations) but folded with severe financial problems.

For now, the U.S. women spend six months of the year in a residency program that sees them train, travel, compete, live and socialize together and allows for a level of fine-tuning and understanding on the pitch that most men's national team coaches can only dream about.

In return, sacrifices have to be made. Lilly admits that, without the support of her firefighter husband David Heavey, such a long and distinguished career would have been impossible, but that does not make the prolonged absence from home and loved ones any easier.

Then again, being the best team in the world is not meant to be easy. Germany is the defending World Cup champion, having lifted the trophy in 2003, but even the Germans admit that any country with ambitions of glory will probably need to get past the U.S.

Having been top dogs for most of the last two decades – boasting two World Cups and two Olympic gold medals on their resume – the Americans are not afraid of the extra pressure and expectation.

"We are like Brazil on the men's side," defender Cat Whitehill said. "We have a highly talented team and we have won more than anyone else. We are a target for everyone because of our past success. People circle their games against the U.S. on the calendar."

Confidence mixed with humility and a devout refusal to underestimate opponents is the formula coach Greg Ryan will use to stave off the kind of fate that befell the Brazilian men in last year's World Cup.

Ryan's team begins its campaign against North Korea in Chengdu on Sept. 11 with the U.S. needing to finish in the top two of a group that also includes Sweden and Nigeria to reach the quarterfinals. The Americans expect to win their group, and they should avoid a tricky quarterfinal matchup if they do. However, things start to get really tough in the semifinals, where classy Brazil, hosts China or even fast-improving neighbors Canada are likely to be waiting.

If the new pro league proves to be a success, then this World Cup and next year's Olympic Games in Beijing could be the last two major tournaments where the U.S. women's team operates like a club. Yet despite the advantage the collective system brings, the likes of 22-year-old striker Heather O'Reilly cannot wait for the time when she will have the opportunity to work as a professional soccer player in the traditional sense.

"We were all disappointed there was no professional soccer league for us here," O'Reilly said. "We are kind of a homeless group – we are always travelling and playing on the road. To have a league and a home base with a sense of community would help us as players and as people."