Saturday, September 27, 2003

Americans excelling at set pieces in World Cup

By Barry Wilner
The Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA - There was a weakness in U.S. women's soccer, and coach April Heinrichs has been trying to cure it for years.

It looks like she has, because the Americans have been sensational on set pieces in the World Cup.

Through two victories, the United States has scored six of its eight goals off either corner kicks, free kicks or penalty kicks. Mia Hamm, reaffirming herself as the best player in the game, has played a role in five of them: three assists on corners, one free-kick goal and one on a penalty kick.

"At this level," Hamm said, "it's very important to be strong on set pieces. It's something we've worked on."

Indeed, Heinrichs has paid special attention to it. The Americans already were as good as anyone in the run of action with their attacking, often creative style. But they were not as dangerous on plays emanating from stoppages.

That certainly has changed, partly because with two 5-foot-11 forwards in Cindy Parlow and Abby Wambach, the U.S. team is difficult to defend in the air. That comes in particularly handy on corner kicks, with Parlow (two) and 5-8 Shannon Boxx (one) scoring off headers set up by Hamm's precise corners.

"For the past few years, April has done a wonderful job of keeping our goals written down," Wambach said, speaking of objectives, not the number of balls that go into the net. "She put it in ink and talked about what kind of percentage of success we want to have on set pieces.

"Even if we don't get a ton of goals in a game, we are being successful in the goals we set as important."

Ah, but they are getting a ton of goals, winning 3-1 and 5-0. Heading into Sunday's game at Columbus, Ohio, against a shorter, less-experienced North Korea, more goals off set plays are a distinct possibility.

While Hamm, soccer's career goal-scoring leader with 144, has become an expert at serving the ball, she is not the only American who can do so. Kristine Lilly is adept at it and Shannon MacMillan, who has not even played yet as she comes off a knee injury, might be the best U.S. player at free kicks. Defender Brandi Chastain, who is sidelined with a broken right foot, also does it well.

Heinrichs was beaming after Thursday's game when asked about the success off set pieces.

"This team's strength in heading and to score four goals off set pieces, that is a big achievement," she said. "We wanted battlers on the field against Nigeria - in the air, on the ground - and to have the ability to do well off set plays.

"We need to be powerful, fearless, aggressive and athletic."

Co-captain Julie Foudy, who like Hamm, Lilly and Joy Fawcett has appeared in all four World Cups, believes the Americans' ability to convert off set plays has grown from all the practice - some of it tedious - Heinrichs incorporated in training sessions. Foudy scored on a penalty kick against Nigeria and, like Hamm, has a goal in every World Cup.

"We've really focused on our services being quality," she said. "We've worked on a lot. It's the only time in soccer you can map out something.

"And when you have those towers up there, it is a real luxury."

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