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U.S. looks for World Cup berth, first-ever win on Italian soil

The United States Women’s National Team squares off with Italy on Saturday in search of the final spot in the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup and its first win on Italian soil.

Saturday is leg one of the home-and-home aggregate series.  The playoff series kicks off at 10:30 a.m. ET, (ESPN3.com) in Padova, Italy and the return leg is Nov. 27 at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill.

The United States finds itself in the unexpected position of being the third-place finisher in CONCACAF qualifying, placing the Americans into this playoff with Italy, a team that finished fifth in European qualifying.  The No. 1-ranked U.S. is favored in the series, but Italy is a largely unknown squad that has managed its way to a No. 11 world ranking.

Mexico shocked the world with a 2-1 win over the U.S. in the CONCACAF semifinals, automatically qualifying ‘El-Tri’ along with Canada and sending the U.S. to the third place game against Costa Rica.  There, the Americans won 3-0, which only gave them the right to a playoff with Italy.

Needless to say, the U.S. has something to prove.

“This is a World Cup game for us,” U.S. forward Abby Wambach said Thursday.  “This isn’t the Algarve Cup where we are training or training through a tournament.  We are here to win this game and we’re not here to win by just one goal.  We want to score a number of goals against Italy.”

Losing to Mexico exposed technical inability in the U.S. midfield and a lack of pace in the back.  More than anything, an inspired Mexico out-worked the United States in front of over 8,000 fans in Cancun.  Hard criticism of the U.S. team followed, but co-captain Christie Rampone said the team is still positive.

“I think the most important thing is togetherness,” Rampone said.  “You know, when you go through a tough time like this you have to look towards each other and become a unit and not break down.  I think the bond is stronger.”

Still, the United States has to out-score Italy over the course of two games.  Away goals count as a tie-breaker, but those have eluded the U.S. on previous trips to Italy.

The U.S. holds an 8-4-1 all-time advantage over the Italians, but has lost all four games in Italy (1-0 in 1985, 1-0 in 1986, 2-1 in 1988 and 1-0 in 2001).

Italy poses a mysterious threat to the United States.  It is a largely unknown squad by media and players.  U.S. Head Coach Pia Sundhage said she is familiar with the team, but admitted earlier in the month that her players do not know much about Italy.

Proving how mysterious Italy is to the American public is the lack of information on the team – even for U.S. players.  The biggest talking point in American women’s soccer circles is Italy captain and forward Patrizia Panico, who is most famous in Women’s Professional Soccer for her hard tackle from behind on Leslie Osborne that ended Osborne’s season six weeks early.  Ironically, Osborne has been called into U.S. training camp for the Italy series.

Rampone, a center back, played with Panico at Sky Blue FC in 2010 so she knows about the Italian striker’s game.

“She’s a solid player,” Rampone said.  “She’s scored a lot of goals for her country and it’s something that we have to be mindful of and know where she is at all times on the field to not let her build confidence as the game goes on.  I think we need to hold a high line on her and keep her far away from goal.”

But the rest of Italy’s squad is unexplored and unknown to the American public.  It is a team that advanced through a rigorous European qualifying campaign and beat Switzerland in a separate two leg playoff to get to the United States.  Clearly, Italy is no push over.

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