Teamwork vs. individual brilliance

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Coach Greg Ryan knows the United States' Women's World Cup semifinal against Brazil on Thursday will provide the ultimate contrasting battle between teamwork and individual brilliance.

Ryan's team is a collective unit, having lived together in a residency program leading up to the tournament and operating with a high level of understanding and organization forged by hundreds of training sessions and more than 50 matches over the past two years.

While there are experienced veterans like Kristine Lilly and standout stars such as Abby Wambach, no one in the U.S. squad is put on a pedestal.

"With us, it is never about one player," said Lilly, who is playing in her fifth World Cup and hopes to add to the championship medals she won in 1991 and 1999. "The team means everything to us."

With Brazil, things are different. In playmaker Marta, the South Americans possess arguably the greatest talent in the women's game. The current FIFA Women's World Player of the Year is capable of turning matches with a superb array of skills, and when Marta's colleagues claim that she "plays like a man," they mean it with the utmost respect.

Such appreciation is something that is often denied to Marta in her homeland, where the profile of the successful national men's team leaves little room for interest in the women's squad. Marta has sought her fame and fortune overseas and plays her club soccer with Umea in Sweden, where she is a more recognizable and popular figure than in Brazil.

If the Americans can keep Marta under wraps, then they should have little to fear from the rest of Brazil's lineup, which is liable to lose shape under pressure. However, that is easier said than done. Solving the Marta problem will be a big challenge for Ryan due to her devilish changes of pace, which mean she can be difficult to mark one-on-one.

Leslie Osborne is expected to do most of the defensive dirty work. Ryan may also try to spring a trap, using a zonal system to deny Marta space when she advances into dangerous positions. Australia made containing the 21-year-old its main focus in the quarterfinals, a ploy which nearly earned the Aussies an upset win before Brazil struck late to clinch victory.

Ryan was joking when he claimed the only way to stop Marta was to "put all 11 players right around her," but he is well aware that she is the biggest obstacle between his squad and a showdown with either Germany or Norway in Sunday's final.

"It is a challenge," Ryan said. "We will come up with some different scenarios and different ideas on how to cope with certain situations. We have met with big challenges before and responded well to them."

The U.S. has looked more assured as the tournament has progressed, reeling off three wins since their opening draw against North Korea. By grinding down a greatly improved England team in a 3-0 quarterfinal rout, the Americans proved they have the willpower, as well as the ability, to win the title.

Wambach should enjoy herself in attack against the Brazilians and is unlikely to be fazed even if they attempt a repeat of rough (and ultimately ineffective) tactics used against the U.S. in a 2-0 friendly defeat in June. She poses a significant aerial threat and has the strength to hold off Brazil captain Aline, who is likely to be given the responsibility of marking Wambach.

Wambach believes that over the course of 90 minutes in Hangzhou it will be the chemistry of the U.S. unit that will prove decisive.

"It is time to step up and we know it," Wambach said. "We believe in each other and that belief is the greatest asset you can have."