No fear: Norway's attitude toward U.S. stops at healthy respect

Posted: Wednesday, October 01, 2003

FOXBORO, Mass. Norway has all kinds of respect for the U.S. women's soccer team. What the Norwegians do not have is fear.

Nor should they. After all, only one nation holds an all-time winning record against the United States, and it's Norway at 18-16-2.

So the second-ranked Norwegians enter Wednesday night's quarterfinals of the World Cup with confidence that they can beat the top-seeded Americans, just as they did in the 2000 Olympics final.

''We've beaten them before, so of course we believe we can,'' Norway's star forward, Dagny Mellgren, said Tuesday. ''They have respect for us because we have the most wins against them.

''And we always play good against them. They are tough games and fun to play against the U.S.''

The last three meetings have not been too much fun for Norway, which lost all three. But in 2000, the Norwegians, on a goal by Mellgren, beat the United States 3-2 in overtime to win the Olympics.

''I remember almost everything; it is a goal you can't forget,'' Mellgren said. ''We were big heroes at home after that, with so many people coming to the airport to see us when the team came back from the Olympics. It gave us a lot of attention.''

But this Norway team might not be as strong as the 2000 squad. There has been something of a transition to younger players, goalkeeper Bente Nordby had to be talked out of retirement to play in the World Cup, and key midfielder Hege Riise is coming off torn knee ligaments she suffered in May.

Riise is available for only 30 minutes or so a game.

Plus, Norway was beaten soundly in the opening round by Brazil, 4-1.

''That was an awful game for us,'' Riise said. ''It was frustrating. We weren't sad. We were ticked off.''

If they are ticked off that the two highest-ranked teams in women's soccer are meeting in the quarterfinals, the Norwegians aren't letting on. At some point, they expected to play the United States.

''It would be nicer,'' Nordby noted, ''if it was in the final.''

The defending champion Americans had a superb first round against tough competition, but they know Norway is another huge challenge. The fact that Norway has won eight times on U.S. soil also irks the Americans.

''They are so good mentally with us,'' said defender Kate Sobrero, who played with Mellgren for the WUSA's Boston Breakers. ''You play Norway, no matter where it is, and you have to come out 100 percent mentally and physically prepared because they will be.

''Norway is not afraid of us. Not that any team should be, but U.S.-Norway is a great rivalry and they have had a lot of success with us. They like to compete,'' she said. ''On the other hand, we aren't afraid of any team, either. We'll come at them like we do everyone.''

The game could be won in the air, where Norway is strongest and the Americans are the most improved. With towering forwards Cindy Parlow and Abby Wambach and midfielder Shannon Boxx, the United States has more power and heading skills than ever.

The U.S. team also has excelled on set plays, with free kicks and corner kicks leading to nearly all of its goals thus far.

So who has the edge? The Americans because they are at home and are on such a roll? Or the Norwegians, who have that laudable record against the United States?

''It's getting harder to beat the U.S.,'' Riise said. ''They are getting stronger at everything. We have nothing to lose; no one expects us to win. We'll go out and have fun and play another battle with the U.S. team.''

After which, one of the favorites will be gone.

''Nothing has ever been handed to this team,'' Mia Hamm said. ''Nothing has ever been handed to Norway. Because of that mentality, it's why you see the U.S. and Norway always where they are. They find any ways to improve themselves and so are we. And that's why the respect is so strong."

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