The sixth FIFA Women's World Cup kicks off in Germany in June, with the team from the host nation as the two-time defending champion. The United States women's soccer team won the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and is ranked number-one in the world. But the American team named this week will face a difficult challenge in its quest for the title.
When the first World Cup for women was played in China in 1991, the United States was clearly a dominant team. Four years later at the second World Cup in Sweden, the USA came in third, then recaptured the crown at home in 1999 with a stirring final shootout victory over China.
But during the past decade, women's football teams around the globe have made huge improvements to where next month's World Cup in Germany is expected to be the most tightly contested ever.
U.S. coach Pia Sundhage says that is good for the sport. Sundhage is a former player from Sweden and was hired after the U.S. finished a disappointing third at the 2007 World Cup in China. She says she has brought a different philosophy to the team that helped lead to Olympic gold in 2008.
"Coming from the fact that U.S. Soccer was brave enough to hire a coach from Sweden and try to get that gold medal, and the fact that the players embraced that change made the difference," said Sundhage. "Now we are working on certain things, and now we are talking about change again. It's a different way. It's a different road to Germany."
Sundhage says more changes were needed because the Americans nearly missed qualifying for this year's World Cup. They were beaten by Mexico in regional qualifying, 2-1, failing to gain an automatic berth. They had to survive a tight two-game playoff with Italy to earn their spot in Germany.
"If we can deal with that pressure, which we did against Italy - and that was amazing - and we came out stronger after those games," added Sundhage. "And the other thing is I think it is so important to look at whatever the game teaches us. So I look back and there are a lot of chances to bring up certain things and tell the team, 'You know what, we made it.' And I think that's a good feeling."
Coach Sundhage says it was difficult selecting the 21 players who will represent the United States at next month's tournament in Germany. Twelve have no World Cup experience. And only one, captain Christie Rampone, a defender, played on the 1999 U.S. team that won the World Cup.
Star forward Abby Wambach, who missed the Beijing Olympics with a broken leg, is expected to lead the offense.
"It's not going to be easy," said Wambach. "It's going to be the most difficult world championship to win - World Cup or Olympics - and I'm excited to get started. It's going to be an amazing tournament. But what is it going to take? It's going to take some guts. It's going to take some luck. It's going to take some skill, some goals, some defending. You have to do everything."
The U.S. women begin the last of their World Cup warm-up matches on Saturday in Columbus, Ohio, against fourth ranked Japan. They will also face the Japanese May 18 in Cary, North Carolina, and will have their send-off match June 5 against Mexico in Harrison, New Jersey.
Coach Sundhage says that although they are friendly matches and offer a chance to experiment with line-ups, winning is a priority.
"Games are very important," Sundhage explained. "We talk about the gold medal. We talk about this and that. For me, it's to win the next game, and win it in such a way that you learn from that game and you have a bigger chance to win the next game."
For the World Cup in Germany, which runs from June 26 to July 17, the United States women are drawn in Group C for the opening round and will face North Korea, Colombia and Sweden.