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WASHINGTON - If it were not for bad luck, the US women's football squad would have no luck at all as it prepares to defend Olympic gold in China.
Abby Wambach, their leading scorer with 13 goals this year and 99 in 27 career matches, suffered a broken left leg on July 16 against Brazil in the final US tuneup match and will miss the Beijing Olympics.
The US's first-round draw includes Japan, New Zealand and the only team to finish ahead of the Americans in the past three Olympics, Norway. The US women won 1996 and 2004 gold but lost to Norway in the 2000 Olympic final.
US coach Pia Sundhage of Sweden took over the team after a flop in last year's Women's World Cup that ended with bitter feelings after goalkeeper Hope Solo was benched by then-coach Greg Ryan and Brazil ripped the US women 4-0.
Germany, winners of the past two Women's World Cup crowns, will lead a set of formidable challengers that include hosts China in trying to dethrone the Americans.
But a new generation of US women, young talent blended with key veterans, has gone 21-0 with one draw under Sundhage this year. Solo is back guarding the nets for the US Olympians. Golden dreams aren't outrageous despite losing Wambach.
"I have the utmost confidence in this team bringing home the gold," Wambach said. "Obviously it's devastating but above everything else I'm only one player and you can never win a championship with just one player."
But oh what a player to lose. Wambach ranks ninth on the all-time women's goal scorers' list. It was her extra-time tally that beat Brazil for gold in the 2004 Olympics. The 28-year-old forward can only watch from the sidelines now.
"I'm excited to watch them and cheer them on during this challenge they've been presented with," Wambach said. "It's really going to take everyone coming together."
That's a sharp contrast from last year after Solo criticised Ryan for benching her and the US lost, though the seeds of this year's unity were sown in last year's discontent.
"Hindsight is 20-20. What's important is we learned from the experience and our team got a lot stronger because of it," midfielder Heather O'Reilly said.
"I learnt what has allowed this team to be successful is not necessarily talent, but teamwork. It's always a team willing to work with each other and fight even beyond the decision of a coach: leaving a bad moment, not dwelling on what could have, would have, should have happened but taking the moment and making the best of what could happen.
"That situation is so far in our past and things we learnt from it will hopefully make us better in Beijing."
Sundhage is a former assistant coach of China's national team who lived in China for six months, teaching as well as learning and now bringing some of the techniques from China and her homeland to the US squad.
"It's a very different coaching style. It was important to learn how their coaches do things," she said. "The most I learned from China was communication, body communication because I don't speak Chinese. It was a great experience." - Sapa-AP