CARSON, Calif. The United States was drawn Thursday into the toughest first-round group for the Women's World Cup, with games against Sweden, North Korea and Nigeria.
Sweden, ranked fifth in the world, is the top non-seeded team in the 16-nation tournament, which opens Sept. 20. North Korea, at a political standoff with the United States over the Asian nation's nuclear weapons programs, is ranked seventh, and Nigeria 23rd.
In the 1999 World Cup, the Americans were scoreless at halftime with North Korea in their first-round matchup before winning 3-0 in the only meeting between the countries. The U.S. team went on to win the world title for the second time.
The Americans play their first game in Group A on Sept. 21 against Sweden at Washington, play Nigeria four days later in Philadelphia and play the North Koreans on Sept. 28 at Columbus, Ohio. The U.S. team is 10-2-5 against Sweden and 2-0 against Nigeria, winning 7-1 in the opening round of the last World Cup.
''Sweden is going to be one of the surprise stories of this tournament,'' U.S. star Mia Hamm said. ''They're extremely organized and young and they have probably one of the best attacking players that I've ever seen at the top in (Hanna) Ljungberg.''
The rest of the draw was (with seeded nations listed first):
Group B Norway, Brazil, France, South Korea;
Group C Germany, Argentina, Canada, Japan;
Group D China, Australia, Ghana, Russia.
The tournament, moved from China because of SARS, begins with Norway playing France in Philadelphia. The other sites for the tournament are Carson, Calif.; Foxboro, Mass.; and Portland, Ore.
Portland is the site of the Oct. 5 semifinals, with the championship match Oct. 12 at Carson.
If the Americans win their group, they would face the second-place team from Group B at Foxboro in the quarterfinals on Oct. 1.
''It's going to be hard,'' said Hamm, who plans to retire after the 2004 Olympics. ''Everything is in place. We know where we're playing, we know when, we know who. Now it's just a matter of being ready for it.''
The match comes at a time when American-North Korean relations are extremely delicate.
The U.S. government included North Korea in an ''axis of evil'' and says North Korea's nuclear ambitions are a regional threat. China is trying to help resolve the crisis through discussions between the two sides. North Korea is desperate for economic aid.
North Korea is considered a strong World Cup challenger, having scored 60 goals and given up just three in qualifying. Forward Ri Kum-suk scored 15 goals at the Asian Championship, including both goals in the final.
U.S. captain Julie Foudy and Hamm marveled at the increase of depth since the 1999 tournament.
''Before you could say, 'Oh, that would be a good team to get.' You don't see that now,'' Foudy said. ''There's really a parity that has been lacking in women's football that is nice to see, where you have so many teams that could really make a run at the Cup.''
China, which lost the 1999 final to the United States on penalty kicks, opens Sept. 21 against Ghana in Carson.
''In the World Cup, every team is very tough,'' Chinese forward Zhang Ouying said. ''You can't say this one is weak because every team is prepared best for this World Cup.''
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