U.S. women ready for World Cup qualifying

After playing two games against China in five days, the U.S. women's national team got a night off on Thursday. They spent it at PPL Park watching the Union game, and that gave me a chance to chat wth coach Pia Sundhage and a few players during halftime.

Sundhage's team got a 2-1 win in the first game, this past Saturday in Kennesaw, Ga.; and a 1-1 draw Tuesday at PPL Park. Though the latter result was a surprise, Sundhage nonetheless came away pleased with what she saw overall.

"Overall, we got two good games, and we've got things to work on, which is good," Sundhage said. "I was good to have two games, because we tried a couple of players and we got some of the new players a little more playing time. And at the same time, we wanted the core of the team to play more minutes together."

China didn't qualify for next summer's World Cup in Germany, which you might not have expected given the nation's strong history in the women's game. But even though China has slipped a bit in recent years, Sundhage said the team should not be taken lightly.

"The team we played against [Tuesday] is a totally different team" from the one that didn't qualify for the World Cup, Sundhage said. "They got a new coach and they got some new players, and I really liked the way they played, because they have improved their game with different players."

The U.S. team has also undergone changes recently as it works to reclaim the World Cup. One of the new players in the fold is Independence forward Amy Rodriguez, who's had a whirlwind last few weeks with the WPS playoffs and national team duty.

"It's been hard to just sit back and relax and finally take a breath," Rodriguez said. "It's been go-go-go for me, and I've enjoyed it. I really have - I would rather have so many soccer things coming my way right now, rather than just sitting at home watching soccer on TV."

Even though Rodriguez has enjoyed being busy, that doesn't mean it's been easy to deal with everything. Perhaps the biggest challenge was the Independence's three-day turnaround from their WPS playoff semifinal in Boston to the championship game in the Bay Area.

"It was really tough, I'm not going to lie," Rodriguez said. "We really did mentally try to mentally prepare ourselves for it, and we did the best we could, but I think physically we weren't as sharp as we could have been."

The Independence weren't just challenged by the travel, of course. There was the burden of having played two straight overtime games, and to top it all off, they had to face Brazilian superstar Marta on her home turf.

For as great a season as Rodriguez as had, even she had to admit that Marta is the best player in the world right now.

"I'm glad I'm not a defender and I don't have to go against her very much," Rodriguez said with a wry smile. "Just watching her play is exciting, and she's one of those players that you don't want to play against. You always want her on your team."

Rodriguez should have an easier time of things in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament that will take place at the end of this month in Mexico. The U.S. will face Haiti, Guatemala and Costa Rica in group play. Mexico and Canada are in the other group, so the U.S. won't have to worry about them until the semifinals.

The top two teams in each group will advance to the semifinals, and the two finalists will qualify automatically for the World Cup. The third-place team will play a playoff against the fifth-place team from Europe for a place in the 16-team tournament.

The U.S. should win its group easily. Canada is a better team than Mexico, but Mexico is improving and will be playing on home soil. If Canada is able to avoid the upset and win the other group, the U.S. should have smooth sailing with a semifinal match against Mexico. A U.S.-Canada semifinal would have quite a bit of pressure in it for both teams.

Rodriguez's goalscoring skills are one of the reasons why the U.S. has been playing so well lately. Another is Rodriguez's partner up top, Abby Wambach. The 5-foot-11 veteran remains one of the most effective strikers in the sport, and has flourished under Sundhage's watch.

Although Sundhage has been at the helm since the fall of 2007, memories still remain of the U.S. team's struggles under her predecessor, Greg Ryan. Sundhage's team plays a much more attractive brand of soccer, and that has not been lost on Wambach.

"Pia just brings a different dynamic than most American coaches can coach," Wambach said. "She wants it to be a beautiful game and it's been a privilege to play under her."

Rodriguez echoed that sentiment.

"The one thing that [Sundhage] has always brought is creativity and freedom for us as players, and we really enjoy playing under her for that reason," Rodriguez said. "I feel like she just gives us confidence - she believes in us and allows us to make our own decisions out there, and to just go out and play."

Women's Professional Soccer has also been a major factor in the U.S. national team's success. Although the league is on shaky financial footing, it has achieved a key purpose for any professional league: giving players a stage on which to showcase themselves for national teams around the world.

"You have 180 players out there and two of those player may make the national team one day," veteran U.S. midfielder Kristine Lilly said.. It opens up a door for players to have an opportunity to try to play at the highest level."

WPS has also given stars like Lilly a chance to keep playing the game they love for a living. The 39-year-old is still going strong, and is far from finished adding to her world record caps. Lilly's next appearance for the U.S. national team will be the 350th of her career.

To achieve that kind of success at the international level is a remarkable accomplishment for any player, even though women's soccer doesn't have the same level of depth as the men's game.

"I owe it to my grandma - she lived to be 92 and she never had a [driver's] license, so she walked everywhere," Lilly said. "I've always been fit, and that's what my cornerstone is."

The last words go to Sundhage, who reflected on how this year's WPS campaign both improved her players and gave them a new set of challenges with the national team. You can listen to my interviews with Sundhage and all the other players I talked to in the audio player below.

It's good for the players to play with different cultures. You have different players from different worlds [in WPS}: you have Marta, you have players from Europe. It's good to play with them and play against them. But I'd also say that it's a big step between WPS and the international game. So if you look at a performance in the WPS, and compare it to the China games, I think it's a step. And it's another step in order to win the World Cup.