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U.S. Women Hoping to Play It Again : Soccer: Defending world champions begin regional qualifying against Mexico Saturday.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It will be a long time before the United States’ regional soccer rivals forget what happened in Haiti in the spring of 1991.

The CONCACAF qualifying tournament was held then for the first FIFA Women’s World Championship in China later that year.

The Americans came, they saw and they conquered. Boy, did they conquer!

By the time the final whistle had sounded in Port-au-Prince, the United States had won all five of its games and had outscored the opposition by the unheard of margin of 49-0.

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Mexico was crushed, 12-0. Martinique was similarly overwhelmed, 12-0. Trinidad & Tobago fell, 10-0. Haiti was trounced by another 10-0 score in the semifinals. And in the final, Canada played tough but still was beaten, 5-0.

It was as comprehensive a demonstration of U.S. soccer power as had ever been seen.

Before long, the names of such stars-in-the-making as Michelle Akers-Stahl and Carin Jennings were echoing through the corridors of international soccer.

And by the time the China ’91 tournament was over in November, the Americans were world champions, Akers-Stahl had finished as the competition’s top scorer and Jennings as its most valuable player.

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That is the history.

What makes it particularly unsettling news within CONCACAF circles is that when the regional qualifying tournament kicks off in Montreal Saturday for the 1995 FIFA Women’s World Championship in Sweden, the Americans will be back.

Not only that, they will bring with them Akers-Stahl, Carin Gabarra (nee Jennings) and no fewer than seven other members of the 1991 World Championship team.

The American women are determined to defend their title in Sweden next summer and then, as an encore, to win the gold medal in the first Olympic women’s soccer tournament at the ’96 Atlanta Games.

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It’s a tall order, but as the U.S. team proved yet again in the recent Chiquita Cup tournament, where it defeated established women’s soccer powers Germany, China and Norway en route to the title, the Americans still are the world’s top team.

Their immediate task in Montreal is to win the CONCACAF tournament, which also includes the national teams of Canada, Mexico, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago. It should not be a difficult assignment, but Tony DiCicco, recently named to succeed Anson Dorrance as the team’s coach, is not taking victory for granted.

“Getting the team up to play some of the lesser teams after beating three of the best in women’s soccer--Germany, China and Norway--is a concern,” said DiCicco, 45, who was the goalkeeper coach with the 1991 world championship team.

“I think we’re going to be fine, but you can’t afford to have a bad game in a qualification tournament. We have Mexico Saturday. We’re not going to take it lightly. If we play our best, I like our chances against anyone.”

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The starting lineup for the United States includes eight World Championship winners and has five players from California--defender Joy Fawcett of Huntington Beach, midfielders Julie Foudy of Laguna Niguel, Tisha Venturini of Modesto and Tiffany Roberts of San Ramon, and forward Gabarra of Rancho Palos Verdes.

Four of the 18 players on the U.S. squad play professionally for clubs in Sweden, and several others are college coaches or assistant coaches, among them Gabarra at Navy and Fawcett at UCLA.

According to DiCicco, the veterans of the China campaign of three years ago actually have improved since defeating Norway in the final at Guangzhou.

“I think some of our players are getting (even) better (than they were in China),” he said. “I think Carla (Overbeck) is better at the sweeper position; I think Julie Foudy’s better, Christine Lilly’s better, Mia Hamm’s better.

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“I think there are a lot of our core players who are better than they were in the last World Championship. So we have to fill in now and develop some of these other players that we have.”

The youngsters are pressing to make the starting lineup and several already have done so, giving the team a new chemistry and a new impetus. World champions are being pushed by would-be world champions.

“Right now, it’s a good combination, with some young players who are bringing different dimensions to the team--Tiffany Roberts has been a real joy and Briana Scurry has been very, very consistent in goal, so we’re excited about those two players,” DiCicco said.

Dorrance, who will bow out after the CONCACAF tournament to devote more time to his family and to the immensely successful University of North Carolina program, is just as excited as DiCicco about the current U.S. squad.

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“We’ve got all kinds of things that I like about this team,” he said. “The team we took into Haiti had wonderful dimensions but, let’s face it, we were kind of untested.

“We had beaten some of the best teams in the world, but we really didn’t know how good we were. We thought we could be the best in the world, but we weren’t sure. Now, we know what it takes.

“Even our veterans who were superstars in China have wrinkles in their game that are very positive. They have some sophistication in their game now that they didn’t have in China. So, aspects of their game are better.”

It all adds up to bad news for the four other CONCACAF teams in Montreal. Their one consolation is that two of the five countries will qualify to join 10 other nations in the World Championship in Sweden.

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The Americans figure to win the regional tournament, but one other country, probably Canada, can look forward to joining them in Europe next summer.

The Schedule

A look at the CONCACAF qualifying tournament for the 1995 FIFA Women’s World Championship: SATURDAY

* Canada vs. Jamaica, 4 p.m.

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* U.S. vs. Mexico, 6 p.m.

MONDAY

* Trinidad & Tobago vs. Jamaica, 3 p.m.

* Canada vs. Mexico, 5 p.m.

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WEDNESDAY

* Mexico vs. Jamaica, 3 p.m.

* U.S. vs. Trinidad & Tobago,

5 p.m.

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AUG. 19

* U.S. vs. Jamaica, 3 p.m.

* Canada vs. Trinidad & Tobago, 5 p.m.

AUG. 21

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* Trinidad & Tobago vs. Mexico, 2 p.m.

* Canada vs. U.S., 4 p.m.

All games played at Claude Robillard Stadium in Montreal.

All times PDT.

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