By Grant Wahl
August 20, 2008

BEIJING -- If the U.S. women's soccer team can upset Brazil in Thursday's gold-medal game (USA, 9 a.m. ET), would it be the greatest on-field accomplishment in the history of the storied U.S. program?

It's a question that's worth asking on the eve of what should be a fascinating matchup between the two bitter rivals. Granted, nothing the U.S. team does will ever match the lightning-in-a-bottle breakthrough of the 1999 Women's World Cup championship.

But that team was expected to win.

If this American outfit strikes gold, however, it would cap a remarkable transformation after the U.S. lost star forward Abby Wambach to a broken leg in the final pre-Olympic exhibition game. A victory on Thursday would be a startling rejoinder to Brazil's 4-0 win in last year's Women's World Cup semifinals, and it would ratify the overhaul that first-year coach Pia Sundhage has performed on the team's skills and even its psyche.

So I asked several U.S. players: Would a gold medal here be the team's greatest on-field feat?

"I believe so," says captain Christie Rampone, who played on the '99 World Cup team. "We've gone through so much and there have been so many stops along the way, the biggest one being losing Abby before we came here. It's the first time a U.S. [women's] team has lost a game in the Olympics and come back to make the final. So if we made this [happen] it would just be the ultimate."

Defender Kate Markgraf, another holdover from the '99 team, wouldn't go so far as to hail a gold medal here as the team's greatest feat, but she did provide some revealing context for the challenges the U.S. has faced in Wambach's absence.

"We have to play with all 11 players touching the ball," Markgraf says. "We have to. It's a totally different team because we can't be successful playing how we used to if we don't have Abby. I think it's forced our hand."

Here are six other things to ponder heading into the gold-medal game:

The Americans remember how Brazil celebrated last year. The 4-0 World Cup loss to Brazil was bad enough in '07, and the Hope Solo controversy would mushroom into a mainstream media event. But the U.S. players remember just as clearly an event that took place behind the scenes just after the loss in Hangzhou last year.

The U.S. and Brazil teams were both staying in the same hotel, and the American players were being consoled by their friends and families in the lobby after suffering the worst loss in the team's history. Then the Brazilians arrived.

"They came in chanting and hitting their drums and singing and dancing," recalls Markgraf. "They'd just kicked our butts so they were so excited. Some were dancing, but the other ones were just watching us and videotaping our reactions as they came through.

"Maybe it's a personal preference, but I think when you win you should be respectful to your opponent. And for them to videotape our reactions as they walked into the hotel ... I just wouldn't do that to another team."

Says Rampone: "They were just circling us and dancing. It's something I won't forget."

This is Marta's chance to win the Big One. There's a reason Kobe Bryant says he can't wait to watch Marta, the two-time defending World Player of the Year: She's taking women's soccer to levels it has never seen before. But we can't start including the sickeningly young Marta (who's still just 22) on the list of greatest women's soccer players until she actually wins something, and that hasn't happened yet.

Thursday represents her best chance yet.

"I have complete respect for her, but at the same time you still have to play your game," says Markgraf, whose speed will be tested mightily. "You lay off her and she's going to score on you, and if you go in hard she's going to spin you. So you've got to do the best you can and play honestly. It's a very tough line to play against all these Brazilians."

The U.S. beat Brazil 1-0 in two exhibition games last month, but that Brazil team didn't have its three big stars: Marta, Daniela and Cristiane (who's scored a tournament-leading five goals herself in these Olympics).

Speaking of which ... Her name gets butchered all the time, but the way to pronounce Cristiane's name is Chrees-chee-AH-nee. Your Brazilian friends will appreciate the effort.

And speaking of Kobe ... You can't deny that Bryant (who grew up in Italy) really does love the sport of soccer. One of my FIFA moles tells me that Bryant so badly wanted to see Argentina's Lionel Messi that he sat in the common-man seats at Workers' Stadium for the Argentina-Brazil men's semifinal since the VIP section was already full.

Sundhage has probably done enough to keep her coaching job. Unless the U.S. gets absolutely spanked in the gold-medal game, I expect that Sundhage will be rewarded with a four-year contract to replace the one-year deal she's been on.

"I think if U.S. Soccer were to let her go it would probably be the worst decision ever," says midfielder Carli Lloyd. "I love her. I have grown so much as a player, even in these last five games. If she's there longer I think this team could do some really good things."

In a sense, Sundhage's real value would be in how she could shape this U.S. team to play a skillful brand of soccer in the long term, not in how she could prepare this team over a few frantic months for the '08 Olympics. (But she's been pretty successful in that regard, too.) Given how supportive U.S. Soccer prez Sunil Gulati was of Sundhage even before the quarterfinals, I think the job is hers to keep as long as this isn't a blowout.

The Hope Solo story really could come full-circle. We've been on top of the Solo saga for a while here, but it really would be an amazing turnaround if the goalkeeper was able to help lead the U.S. past the Brazil team she never got to play against in last year's World Cup. "I didn't see myself back here months and months ago," Solo said after the semifinal win over Japan. "I can't believe I made it back. I was in no shape to go for it a few months ago. But it feels good."

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