CARSON, Calif. - Once a pushover, Canada now is a formidable foe for the U.S. women, who hope to conclude their disappointing World Cup with a decisive third-place victory today.
The last time the Americans were in this position, in 1995, they beat China 2-0 for bronze. A year later, they won the Olympics. Three years after that, the United States took its second World Cup title.
It is a precedent the Americans like and hope to repeat.
"It's huge," goalie Briana Scurry said of taking third. "It would give some pride of actually getting something tangible out of this. We've worked so hard for the better part of two years and we've got to come away with a good feeling and know we gave our best."
Against Canada, the U.S. women almost always have been better.
They are 25-3-3 and have a 112-34 edge in goals.
But recently, under Norwegian coach Even Pellerud - who guided Norway to the '95 championship - Canada has become a soccer force. In this tournament, it won a Cup game for the first time then stunned China to make the semifinals.
Sweden eliminated the Canadians 2-1 with a late rally and faces Germany in Sunday's final. The Germans beat the United States 3-0 in the other semifinal.
"They are tough, physical and they go after it," Scurry said of the Canadians. "What they might lack in the ability to possess the ball they make up for in grit, effort and hard work. They have plenty of that and can make any game interesting.
"They're riding high and I am sure they like nothing better than to be playing us. They're running on adrenaline and to play us is the cherry on top for them."
Several Canadian players emphasized that, short of facing the Americans in the final, this is a dream match.
"We're happy we're playing for the bronze medal," midfielder Diana Matheson said. "It's going to be a tough game. The U.S. are big rivals. We always play each other hard. I think this game is just for pride, especially for the U.S."
That is why coach April Heinrichs will play her regulars, many of whom could be appearing in their final World Cup game. Heinrichs is certain she will get the same kind of effort today that she always has from Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett, Kristine Lilly and Scurry, the core veterans of the squad.
"We want to walk onto the field and go after our opponent and bring closure to this event holding our heads high," Heinrichs said.
For Hamm, it will be her last World Cup match. After the 2004 Athens Olympics, she plans to retire. Of course, she did not plan on going out in a third-place match.
"You're on the World Cup team and you're a professional and that's the way you play," she said. "I won't get to represent the U.S. in the World Cup again. I owe it to all those people since I was I don't know how old who supported me to do that."
Most of the U.S. players believe Sunday's final will be a wide-open affair in which Germany has an edge, a slight one. The way German goalie Silke Rottenberg played against the Americans, it is not surprising they favor Germany.
"I'm a little nervous inside," Rottenberg said Friday. "But the important thing is that the others don't see it."
Swedish keeper Caroline Joensson, like Rottenberg, made the all-tournament team. She did her best work after the Swedes lost to the United States in their Cup opener.
"I have a lot of confidence in our team," said Joensson, who missed the quarterfinals with an injury but has been healthy for almost a week. "I think we have one of the best defenses in the world.
"Our players are very tactical. We know what we have to do and we do it."