The United States begins its bid to re-establish itself as the leading nation in women's soccer Tuesday against one of the most secretive and mysterious teams in the game's history.
Head coach Pia Sundhage admitted that the USA's opener against North Korea at the Women's World Cup in Germany is essentially a leap into the unknown, what with the extraordinary blanket of secrecy surrounding the team from the controversial communist nation.
A strong start is vital for the Americans but a lack of information about its first opponent has made life tough for Sundhage and her players.
"We don't fully know what to expect," Sundhage said. "There is not a lot of information but what we do know is that they [will be] very athletic and fast and well organized.
"We want to win this tournament so of course we want to make a winning start and get ourselves into the tournament."
The two-time champion Americans are no longer the driving force in the women's game, and it is believed by some that the national team program has suffered from not having its players in a permanent residency program – especially since the inception of Women's Professional Soccer (WPS), a national league.
In fact, the USA had uncharacteristic difficulty in even making it to Germany, losing to Mexico in CONCACAF regional qualifying and being forced to negotiate a do-or-die playoff against Italy in order to make it through – which was accomplished via a 2-0 aggregate victory.
Host nation Germany and Brazil are considered the favorites to lift the trophy. And while the U.S. hasn't won the Cup since Brandi Chastain's memorable shirt removal in 1999, the Americans still are expected to top Group C ahead of North Korea, Sweden and Colombia.
But it might not be easy.
The North Koreans snatched a draw against the USA in the group stage of the 2007 tournament and presumably have hopes of doing even better this time around, having beaten a tough England side 3-0 in a recent warm-up game.
But with all of its players prohibited from having any contact with the media and head coach Kim Kwang-Min offering only brief comments, it is hard to know what to expect from North Korea.
Following the disappointing performance of its men's team at the World Cup last year, there were claims of governmental reprisals against the coach and his players. Women's coach Kim decried those reports as "evil propaganda" – this while, perhaps ironically, being accompanied by several members of the Communist Party security force.
Yahoo! Sports has learned that the team's training base in Germany was carefully prepared to ensure players do not have access to foreign media outlets such as the BBC or CNN.
Those details are of little concern to the Americans, who want to win their group and advance to a likely contest with Norway in a quarterfinal before potentially facing host Germany in the last four.
The team is determined to erase its bad memories from the last Women's World Cup in 2007, which ended in controversy when goalkeeper Hope Solo was ditched for the 4-0 semifinal defeat to Brazil and then embarked upon a vitriolic rant against coach Greg Ryan and replacement keeper Briana Scurry.
The USA, led by Sundhage, rebounded by winning the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, but all eyes will be on the side over the next three weeks to see if it can emerge as the powerhouse of women's soccer once more.
Group A: 1. Germany; 2. France; 3. Canada; 4. Nigeria
Group B: 1. Japan; 2. England; 3. Mexico; 4. New Zealand
Group C: 1. United States; 2. Sweden; 3. North Korea; 4. Colombia
Group D: 1. Brazil; 2. Norway; 3. Australia; 4. Equatorial Guinea.
Quarterfinals: Germany beats England; Japan beats France; USA beats Norway; Brazil beats Sweden
Semifinals: Germany beats USA; Brazil beats Japan
Final: Germany beats Brazil.
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