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U.S. women's soccer arrives in (new) formation

By 6 p.m. Sunday, the Southside Fury U-12 girls soccer team was beginning to get restless.

They were waiting for the airplane carrying the U.S. women's national team to touch down in Portland, and the 30 or so girls were not going to wait until Thursday's friendly against Canada at Jeld-Wen Field to meet their heroes. They wanted to meet the U.S. team RIGHT NOW.

The 11- and 12-year-olds who had gathered at the Portland International Airport baggage claim dribbled soccer balls, ran around, talked and made their parents hold their handmade signs.

'They're really inspiring to all of us,' said 11-year-old Gabbby McGaughey, of the U.S. team players. 'They make you want to try your hardest.'

Added 11-year-old Rachel Breyer, 'They're amazing.'

At 7 p.m., news spread that the delayed flight had finally arrived. The girls grabbed their signs and gathered around the escalator.

U.S. striker Abby Wambach was the first player to appear. The Southside Fury began cheering and screaming. Out of respect for Canada - which had flown in on the same flight - the girls began chanting 'soccer, soccer' instead of 'USA, USA.'

As soon as she got off of the escalator, Wambach was surrounded by girls begging for her autograph.

The flight from Kansas City, Kan., where the U.S. and Canada played to a 1-1 draw on Saturday, did not contain former University of Portland stars Megan Rapinoe and Stephanie Cox of the U.S., or Sophie Schmidt of Canada. The former Pilots caught an earlier flight to watch the UP women beat Oregon State 2-1 Sunday afternoon.

U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo was not on the flight, either. She is coming to Portland later in the week, because of a commitment to be on 'Dancing With the Stars.'

Even so, the Southside Fury had their hands full getting all of the autographs they could.

'Will you sign my forehead?' one girl asked Wambach.

Wambach laughed.

'I am not signing your forehead,' she said, firmly.

After much begging, Wambach finally relented and wrote her name on the girl's forehead with a black Sharpie pen.

'I'm not washing my face when I get home,' the girl informed her mother, a few moments later.

Even with all of the U.S. team's success in the World Cup last summer, when they lost a shootout to Japan in the final, it is still a thrill for the U.S. women to see how much support they have.

'This never really gets old,' Wambach said. 'We're really excited to have the opportunity not just to participate in something that's our passion, but to be able to inspire kids throughout this country, throughout the world.

'We're really in a great position in terms of the things we can do to affect people in a positive way. It's really important for people to understand that what we do is a game. But it transcends lines. I was sitting in their shoes not too long ago.'

As the baby of the national team, 22-year-old striker Alex Morgan knows what Wambach is talking about. She was younger than the girls on the Southside Fury when she watched the U.S. beat China in the World Cup final in 1999.

'This is definitely exciting,' Morgan said. 'It's really nice to see our support in each city. Kansas City gave us a great crowd, and Portland, you can already see that they're excited for the game. It's sold out. It's nice to see right away once we get into the city that we have that support.'

With the Olympic qualifiers looming, the U.S. will use the friendly on Thursday to do some fine-tuning. On Saturday, the team unveiled a new 4-5-1 formation that it is still trying to get comfortable with.

'We always want to have fun when we're playing,' Morgan said, 'but of course this is preparation for Olympic qualifiers. We're trying out our new formation, trying to see how that works with our team and how players work in certain positions. It's definitely preparation.'

U.S. coach Pia Sundhage admitted that after a long break, the team is not going to be playing at the same level it did last summer.

'They are not 100 percent,' Sundhage said. 'They're coming off of a little bit of a break. So expectations are a little bit different compared to the World Cup.'

Over the next four days, the team will have an opportunity to not only train together, but also to explore Portland. Morgan was in town a few years ago when she was on the U-23 national team. With the Nike World Campus in Beaverton, Wambach comes to the Rose City often.

'I spend a lot of time in Portland,' Wambach said. 'I'm excited to get on the Nike campus and to see what all the folks and the employees at Nike have got planned for us this week.'

Sundhage said she wants to use the next few days to reconnect with her players, debrief from the World Cup and get them ready to move forward.

'I've built in a lot of time to have individual talks with them,' Sundhage said. 'Sort of wrap up the World Cup and go forward for the Olympics.'

Maybe it was partly from arriving to screams and cheers, but Sundhage said she is confident that the team will have fun in Portland.

'I'm really looking forward to playing here in Portland,' Sundhage said. 'And I know the players feel the same thing.'