DRESDEN, Germany — After meeting in the first round at the last three Women’s World Cups, the United States should know everything it needs to about North Korea.
Not even close.
Then again, nobody knows much about the North Koreans.
There’s a definite air of mystery surrounding the Americans’ opponent in their World Cup opener Tuesday night.
North Korea plays few games, just five in the last six months, giving opposing coaches little opportunity for scouting. None of the players play overseas professionally. Only two of the North Koreans have previous World Cup experience.
North Korea is also the youngest team in the tournament, with 14 players 20 or younger — including two 16-year-olds and two 17-year-olds — and just one who is 30. Only five players have 10 or more appearances with the senior national team.
“It’s really difficult when you don’t see much of a team and you’re not familiar with how they play,” defender Ali Krieger said Monday after the U.S. training session at Rudolf-Harbig Stadium. “We might get some nerves because you don’t know what to expect.”
Goalkeeper Hope Solo said it’s even hard to see footage of their games. The U.S. is basically keying off two recent North Korean games — against Germany and China — and figuring that’s the lineup they’ll face this time out.
“They are technical, they’re comfortable with the ball, they’re reading the game very well and I think they’re one of the best teams in the world between the boxes,” U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. “But the game and the field’s a little bit bigger. You have to add the two boxes.”
The Americans have played North Korea three times, all at the World Cup. The U.S. dominated the first two meetings, winning each game 3-0. But North Korea has made it a priority to improve its soccer teams, and the results are beginning to show.
At the 2007 World Cup, the Americans went down 2-1 before Heather O’Reilly scored to salvage a draw. The North Koreans won the Under-20 title in 2006, and were runners-up — to the Americans — two years later. They also have won three of the last five Asian titles.
Alex Morgan is one of the few Americans who’s seen the North Koreans up close recently — though “recently” may be a bit of a stretch. She was part of that U-20 team in 2008, scoring the game-winner against North Korea in the final.
“I don’t remember too much. I just remember winning,” Morgan said. “What I remember most is they’re very technical, they love to play one-touch. They have some speed up top. I also remember they are physical, but aren’t afraid to dive a little bit.”
And don’t expect Morgan and the North Koreans to organize any reunions while they’re here, either.
Morgan said she and her teammates didn’t do the traditional jersey exchange with the North Koreans, who quickly headed for the locker room after the loss, and didn’t mix with other teams much off the field.
“They kind of stuck to themselves a little bit. But we did, as well, because we wanted to win the thing and we didn’t want to have anyone stand in our way,” she said. “We didn’t want to make friends until afterward.”
The short scouting report does have one advantage. With details about the North Koreans so scarce, there’s little for the Americans to obsess over. Instead of trying to guess at what the North Koreans might do, or plan for every last formation and tactic, the Americans have spent most of their preparation focusing on themselves.
And there’s plenty of material there.
The Americans are the top-ranked team in the world and the defending Olympic gold medalists. But it’s been a rough couple of months for the two-time World Cup champs, with a stunning upset by Mexico in regional qualifying and losses to Sweden and England since January.
“You lose a couple of games, and everybody thinks it’s the end for you,” defender Heather Mitts said.
Of course, a lot of people wrote the U.S. off after it dropped its opener at the Beijing Games, too. The Americans responded with five straight wins, three of them shutouts — including a 1-0 overtime victory over Brazil in the gold-medal game.
“The team we have is just a fantastic team,” Sundhage said. “We have experienced players. The soccer we’re playing right now is pretty good.”
Indeed, the Americans have looked loose and confident ahead of Tuesday night’s game. A few of the players took pictures as they arrived at the stadium for training, and there was plenty of hooting and cheering during a one-on-one drill in front of the goal. They even mingled with fans on their way back to the team bus, signing autographs and jerseys.
“We like being in this position,” Mitts said, “and hopefully we’ll rise to the occasion.”