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TEAM SPORTS

Soccer

PEEKING DOWN UNDER

On the women's side, The United States has been the best team in the world the past four years. And it will have to prove itself quickly in Australia.

The defending Olympic and World Cup champions are the favorites to repeat as gold medal winners, but there is also a very real possibility they could be eliminated in pool play.

The Americans open against Norway on Sept. 14 and play China three days later. The United States has lost only four matches all year _ three against Norway and one against China. "It is the single most difficult and challenging draw FIFA soccer has ever put out to a team that was ranked No. 1 in the world," U.S. coach April Heinrichs said. "Norway and China are two of the best three teams in the world. It's going to be like the semifinals immediately."

The United States probably could survive by winning one of those two games and then beating Nigeria in the final game of pool play.

On the plus side, the United States has not had a letdown since the dramatic World Cup victory last year, winning all six tournaments it has entered in 2000. It is also well-experienced in international competition with 10 players returning from the '96 Games, including Mia Hamm, Tiffeny Milbrett, Brandi Chastain, Briana Scurry and Julie Foudy.

As for the men, The United States finished the 1900s in a slump. It had been 96 years since they last won an Olympic medal, taking silver in 1904.

Their fortunes are not likely to change drastically in 2000. The team has an outside shot at a medal but probably would be happy to reach the quarterfinals for a change.

Unlike women's soccer, which has no restrictions on the roster, men's teams are predominantly under-23 national teams. Each country is allowed three wild card players over age 23. The reason is so the Olympics do not overshadow World Cup competition.

Fourteen of the 18 players on the U.S. team are playing for Major League Soccer teams, including Tampa Bay's Chad McCarty.

The three wild card selections are D.C. United defender Jeff Agoos, Chicago Fire defender Chris Armas and Frankie Hejduk, a former Mutiny defender playing in Germany.

Beach volleyball

PEEKING DOWN UNDER

It ended without warning, without compassion.

Karch Kiraly, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and the most victorious beach volleyball player in history, saw his season end days before qualifying for the Games.

Kiraly and partner Adam Johnson were second in the rankings and on the verge of earning enough points to return to the Olympics and defend their gold medal from 1996. But while spiking a ball during a tournament in Belgium, Kiraly dislocated his right shoulder and was forced to withdraw.

Days later, the team of Dain Blanton and Eric Fonoimoana passed Kiraly and Johnson to earn the Olympic bid.

Kiraly won his first two Olympic golds as a part of the U.S. indoor volleyball team in 1984 and 1988. He switched to beach volleyball in the '90s and became the sport's all-time leading money winner.

The United States won gold and silver when beach volleyball made its Olympic debut in Atlanta, but will be hard-pressed to repeat. Blanton and Fonoimoana are seeded ninth and Rob Heidger and Kevin Wong are seventh.

On the Women's side, two years ago, they would not have been wise choices to even make the Olympic team. Now the teams of Misty May/ Holly McPeak and Annett Davis/ Jenny Johnson Jordan are contenders for gold. May/McPeak are seeded fourth and Davis/Johnson Jordan are third.

McPeak was an Olympian in 1996 and finished fifth but went through a string of partners over the next three years.

May was a top indoor player who decided to give up the game in '99 and was invited by McPeak to join a partnership. Even though Olympic qualifying tournaments had been ongoing during '99, May and McPeak still played well enough in 2000 to make up ground and earn a bid.

Davis and Johnson Jordan have been together longer _ but not by much.

They first formed a partnership in 1997 and were ranked 93rd in the world. By the end of '99, they were second.

VOLLEYBALL

Women's

PEEKING DOWN UNDER

After a disappointing 1999, coach Mick Haley decided to make some changes. He went looking for fresh talent at the college level and persuaded Stanford's Logan Tom to join the national team. Tom is 6 feet 1, has an abundance of charisma and talent and may be the best player the United States has found in years.

At 19, she is two years younger than anyone else on the team and is probably not ready to lead the United States to gold in Australia. But her presence in 2000 bodes well for the future.

The United States has one bronze to show for the last three Olympic Games but, in a way, already has won this year.

Men's

PEEKING DOWN UNDER

Five members of the 1996 Olympic team return for 2000. That is not necessarily a good thing. The United States finished ninth in Atlanta, the worst outing for the Americans since 1976.

Based on recent international competition, the United States has an outside chance at winning a medal in Sydney, but the team is something of a mystery because of injuries that forced a lineup shuffle in Australia.

Starting outside hitters George Roumain, Mike Lambert and John Hyden missed the final Olympic tuneup tournament with injuries but are expected to be ready to go in Sydney.

"The injuries seriously concern me," coach Doug Beal said.

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