China was a powerhouse through the first six Women's World Cups, reaching the quarterfinals each time and nearly winning the title in 1999, when it lost to the U.S. on penalty kicks.
But after failing to qualify for the last tournament, as well as for the
Judging from the early results, that rebuilding has been wildly successful — not only is China back in the World Cup quarterfinals, but with an average age of 23.4 years, it's the youngest team to make the elite eight as well.
"Over the past two to three years, we have witnessed tremendous progress," assistant coach Wei Wei Chang said through an interpreter. "These young players are so energetic, so enterprising they are becoming a more mature and sophisticated squad. And full of energy.
"I believe they can reach even higher goals in the future."
For now, however, anything beyond Friday's game with the U.S. will be gravy. China's goal coming to Canada was reaching the quarterfinals and it has already achieved that.
In the minds of many of Hao's players, that gives China a huge advantage.
"The U.S. team faces bigger pressure than us," said Wang Shanshan, who scored the only goal in China's 1-0 win over Cameroon in the Round of 16. "We have already obtained our initial objective. We just need to go as far as we can.
"No more pressure."
Midfielder Guixin Ren agreed.
"We are in the top eight," she said. "We have had a huge burden lifted off our shoulders."
Don't expect that to affect China's game plan against the U.S., however. Hao's team has been the most conservative in the tournament, frequently dropping six players behind the ball in a well-organized defense that has allowed just two scores from the run of play.
And on the other end of the field, goals are almost accidental. Consider that Wang, who has two of China's four scores here, is a striker on her club team. On the national team, however, she's listed as a defender.
Asked which position she preferred, Wang smiled and said forward. But on Hao's team the plan is to stop goals, not score them.
"Defense," the coach said, "is our top priority."
In fact, Hao dropped a hint Thursday that China has been preparing for penalty kicks should they be needed to determine a winner against the U.S. — which is exactly what happened the last time the U.S. and China met in a World Cup.
Famously, the Americans won that time and avenging that decision has become a preoccupation of the Chinese media. But defender Wu Haiyan, who was just 6 years old when that 1999 game was played, dismissed that.
"I've watched replays," she said. "It was an exciting and historic match. And hopefully we can create history [Friday]."
Her coach agreed.
"What's past is past," Hao said. "It doesn't make any difference. I don't think it is vengeance or anything like that.
"It is just a match."