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Revamped, re-focused for gold

BEIJING -- It would be easy to put on my TMZ hat to write about Heather Mitts. After all, the right back for the U.S. women's team has posed for FHM and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and has dated an NFL quarterback (A.J. Feeley), a major league baseball player (Pat Burrell) and a pro tennis star (James Blake).

I don't think I'm taking a wild guess here by speculating that when it comes to male sports fans, Mitts is the most Googled female University of Florida alum not named Erin Andrews.

But the TMZ approach would be missing the point with Mitts. For starters, she recently turned down an offer to bare all for Playboy. "They asked me to do a spread with Amanda Beard," Mitts says, "and I just decided it wasn't for me. It's got to be something my dad's OK looking at."

Right now it's all about the soccer anyway for Mitts, 30, who has already won an Olympic gold medal and an NCAA title. When the U.S. women begin the defense of their 2004 gold against Norway on Wednesday in Qinhuangdao (7:45 a.m. ET, MSNBC), Mitts will almost certainly be the starting right back just months after it appeared that her recovery from an ACL injury would keep her off of the team.

"A lot of people don't realize that I really didn't start playing with this team until April," says Mitts, whose torn ACL forced her off the '07 World Cup team and into the ESPN broadcast booth. "I had another setback in March, and I knew I didn't have much time to give myself an opportunity to make the squad. It was stressful -- kind of a do-or-die thing. But luckily Pia knew what I was capable of."

First-year U.S. coach Pia Sundhage was an assistant coach for Mitts on the WUSA's Philadelphia Charge, and Mitts' comfort on the ball and ability to push down the right flank with speed matched the new passing and possession-style philosophy that Sundhage has brought to the U.S. team.

That ugly long-ball approach the U.S. played in the World Cup? It's long gone. "People watching our games will see a possession-oriented style, I hope, because that is what we've been doing for nine months now," Sundhage says. "Everybody on the back line is comfortable with the ball."

It's no surprise, then, that Sundhage has chosen Mitts and Lori Chalupny as her outside backs, moving Chalupny from the midfield spot she played in last year's World Cup.

The operative word for Sundhage's players is to be brave: if an outside back like Mitts is running back toward her own goal and encounters a bouncing ball, previous coaches always wanted her to hoof it out of bounds. Now Sundhage wants Mitts to bring the ball down, possess it (even under pressure) and play it out of the back.

"She loves having the outside backs attack and be active going forward, so for me it's been fun to have that freedom," Mitts says. "I know that I'm going to make mistakes, but at the same time she's been so patient with us. She knows that by taking risks that's going to happen, but we're confident going forward now."

The sad irony is that Mitts was doing exactly what she was supposed to -- initiating an attack down the right side instead of just booting a long ball upfield -- on the passing sequence that led to star forward Abby Wambach's broken right leg in a freak collision with a Brazilian defender during the U.S.' last pre-Olympic exhibition.

Wambach's absence should force the U.S. to play even more on the ground, but it also means there are more unknowns about a U.S. team heading into a major tournament than ever before. Wambach and Kristine Lilly (who just gave birth to her first child) were the team's main offensive options at the '07 World Cup. Neither player is with the team in China.

"Obviously, losing Abby's a huge blow, especially so late in the game," says Mitts, who will have to take on a bigger leadership role as one of the team's few remaining veterans. "We're going to have to adjust. But I do think that we're a deep team and we're excited about our chances even now."

Few soccer-watchers are accustomed to seeing the U.S. women in an underdog role. With Wambach's injury the Americans are the clear No. 3 choice in this Olympic tournament behind two-time defending World Cup champion Germany (which has never won Olympic gold) and Brazil, which thrashed the U.S. 4-0 in the '07 World Cup semifinals.

But maybe the unexpected circumstances will give this young U.S. team an opportunity to show off the bravery that its coach is demanding. Mitts, for one, knows that while she has a long-term future in soccer -- from television commentary to perhaps hitting 100 caps to joining a major-market team in the new WPS league -- the highlight of her playing resume might well be dependent on what takes place in the next three weeks here in China.

Then again, bravery isn't a new concept for Mitts, who took a deep breath in 1999 and ran with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.

"It's one of the coolest things I've ever been a part of," she says. "We were on a three-week tour of Europe, and I was with my best girlfriend and her brother. We decided to stop in the city and see what it was like, and next thing you know, we got talked into actually running with the bulls.

"The first group runs out, and then they ring another bell and let the bulls out. So we looked at each other. What are we doing? We're crazy. Then we were just off and running. It was a pretty amazing experience. I'm glad I'm still alive."

Now imagine that scene on a soccer field in China with a ball at Mitts' feet and bulls -- check that, huge German and Brazilian defenders -- rushing at her with a full head of steam. Will she push forward? Will she be brave? Will her teammates?

We're about to find out.

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