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 Friday, April 12, 2002 13:24 EST

WUSA 2002 Team Previews

[ESPN.com news services]

Atlanta | Boston | Carolina | New York
Philadelphia | San Diego | San Jose | Washington

Atlanta Beat
Head Coach: Tom Stone
2001 Finish: 10-4-7 (37 points), Regular Season Champions, Lost Championship match to San Jose on penalty kicks.
Key Returning Players: M Sun Wen, F Charmaine Hooper, F Cindy Parlow, D Kylie Bivens, GK Briana Scurry, M Homare Sawa
New Players of Note: M/D Liping Wang, D Anna Kraus
Key Players Departed: M Amy Walsh, M/F Kerry Gragg

One step away from winning it all in 2001, the Atlanta Beat looks stronger than ever as the club is considered by many experts to be the favorite to bring home the WUSA Founders Cup trophy in 2002.

Atlanta was the class of the regular season in 2001, as the Beat held onto first or second place throughout the season, finishing the campaign as the WUSA regular season champions. After a thrilling 3-2 overtime playoff victory against Philadelphia, the Beat advanced to the league's first championship game, Founders Cup I. In quite possibly the best match played during WUSA's inaugural season, the Beat and CyberRays played to a 3-3 draw at the end of regulation time. But, San Jose prevailed on penalty kicks and Atlanta began to look toward 2002.

Head coach Tom Stone and his staff return all of the key players from the 2001 regular season champions. Forward Charmaine Hooper (12g-3a=27pts), the Beat's offensive and all-around MVP in 2001, might be the most dominant scorer in the WUSA. Hooper's combination of skill and athletic ability helped her rank third in WUSA scoring last year. The Canadian international also notched one of only three hat tricks in 2001. Hooper's running mate up front is Cindy Parlow, the U.S. national team star whose 17 points (5g, 7a) ranked 10th in the WUSA last season. Parlow's two goals in the Beat's playoff victory over the Philadelphia Charge, including the WUSA's first ever golden-goal, led Atlanta to the championship game.

Japanese national team star Homare Sawa (3g, 2a=8pts) is the engine of the Beat's midfield. Sawa's quick and crafty playing style was exciting to watch and was the reason she quickly became one of the most closely marked players in the WUSA. Chinese superstar Sun Wen, who was limited to just 13 games in 2001 due to injuries, returns with Chinese national team teammate Liping Wang, who brings valuable experience to the Atlanta midfield and has played alongside Sun Wen for nearly a decade at the international level. With Sun playing 90 minutes for the first time in her WUSA career at the Richmond Spring Training Tournament, look for her to make a significant impact when playing a full season with a healthy knee.

With all of the Beat's firepower, many overlooked what proved to be the best defense in the WUSA, as Atlanta allowed a league low 21 goals in 21 matches. The Beat's defense was led by a trio of up-and-coming stars in the women's game. Sharolta Nonen, a member of the Canadian national team, Nancy Augustyniak, a call up to the U.S. national team during the offseason, and Kylie Bivens, another player who is now a regular with the USA, led a defense that posted eight shutouts and allowed opponents to score three goals in only three games last season. First-round draft pick Anna Kraus of Santa Clara will add depth to a talented defense.

Goalkeeper Briana Scurry returned to the form that made her one of the heroes of the 1999 Women's World Cup. She led the WUSA in goals against average (0.82) and winning percentage (66.7%), and was second in shutouts with eight. Scurry's statistics rate her among the best, but a quality that cannot be quantified was her cool demeanor under pressure and the veteran leadership she provided. A young back line that averaged only 23 years of age welcomed her confident leadership. In addition, Scurry underwent an intense fitness regimen during the offseason and is in the best shape of her career.

Boston Breakers
Head Coach: Jay Hoffman
2001 Finish: 8-10-3 (27 points), sixth place
Key Returning Players: GK, Tracy Ducar; D Kate Sobrero, M Kristine Lilly, M Bettina Wiegmann, F Dagny Mellgren, F Maren Meinert.
New Players of Note: F Ragnhild Gulbrandsen, M/D Jena Kluegel
Key Players Departed: D Kim Calkins, D Sarah Powell.

The 2001 Boston Breakers were certainly an exciting team to watch. Head coach Jay Hoffman's squad featured three players in the top 11 in WUSA scoring and finished second in shots during the inaugural season. With an 8-10-3 finish, Boston narrowly missed qualifying for the WUSA Playoffs.

During the 2001 season, the Breakers relied on the "Big 3" - Dagny Mellgren, Kristine Lilly and Maren Meinert. Mellgren (11 goals, 4 assists, 26 points) led the Breakers in both goals scored and points. The slippery Norwegian forward was the WUSA Player of the Week twice last season and developed into a fan favorite with her own cheering section. Lilly, a first-team All-WUSA selection, finished the season tied for the league lead in assists (10). The all-time leader in appearances for the U.S. national team played every minute of every game for the Breakers and was voted the team's most valuable player. Along with Lilly, Meinert also was selected to the first-team All-WUSA squad last season. This highly skilled German forward finished the season as the league's fifth leading scorer (8 goals, 7 assists, 23 points). Mellgren, Meinert and Lilly scored 73 percent of Boston's goals during the 2001 season.

Angela Hucles, Keri Raygor and Bettina Wiegmann bolster the midfield. The versatile Hucles had a solid season playing three positions for the Breakers. Raygor (3 goals, 1 assist), who saw time on defense and the outside flank, added speed to the highly skilled Breakers midfield. German national team member Wiegmann's tremendous vision on the field set the tempo for the Breakers.

When it comes to toughness, the Breakers look to defender Kate Sobrero. The veteran U.S. national team star played in 20 of 21 games. Surrounded by young defenders, Sobrero was looked upon to do more than just play defense. Her leadership kept a young defense together throughout the season. The emergence of defender Chrisy McCann was a welcomed surprise. McCann started the season on the reserve squad and eventually started in all 12 games she appeared in last year. Goalkeeper Tracy Ducar was happy to have Sobrero on her side. The Breakers intense and gritty netminder had a solid season playing in 19 of 21 games. Ducar, who had 90 saves on the year, finished the season with a 1.76 goals against average. However, look for Ducar's backup, Canadian international Karina LeBlanc, to see plenty of action as Ducar will miss the first couple of months with a knee injury.

Boston enters the 2002 season with added firepower as Norwegian national team forward Ragnhild Gulbrandsen provides another scoring weapon to an already dangerous attack. The defense will see the addition of one of the rising stars in American soccer as U.S. national team defender/midfielder Jena Kluegel was selected with the number three overall pick in the WUSA Draft. Look for Kluegel to help shore up Boston's defense, as the former University of North Carolina star brings extensive international experience to the Breakers.

Carolina Courage
Head Coach: Marcia McDermott
2001 Finish: 6-12-3 (21 points), seventh place (tie)
Key Returning Players: D Carla Overbeck (Capt.), M Hege Riise, F Danielle Fotopoulos, M Tiffany Roberts, D Staci Burt, D Staci Wilson
New Players of Note: F Birgit Prinz, M Unni Lehn, D Danielle Slaton
Key Players Departed: F Silvana Burtini, F Meredith Florance

The Carolina Courage enters the 2002 WUSA season looking for a fresh start. After an inaugural season that saw Carolina finish tied for seventh place (6-12-3) with 21 points, the Courage made many enhancements to the club's roster during the offseason to prepare for year two.

Through the middle of the field, Carolina featured some of the league's best players in 2001. Captain Carla Overbeck was the heart and soul of the Courage during the first season. The U.S. national team veteran led the WUSA in blocks (5), scored two goals, and earned second team All-WUSA honors. Norwegian playmaker Hege Riise scored six goals and added eight helpers to rank third in the WUSA in assists in 2001. Riise's performance earned her first team All-WUSA honors, as well as a unanimous nod from her teammates as the Courage's Most Valuable Player. Forward Danielle Fotopoulos had a remarkable year in 2001. She returned to high-level competition only six months after giving birth to her first child, daughter Alexia. Fotopoulos scored nine goals and added five assists to end the season tied for fifth in the WUSA in points (23), sixth in goals, and eighth in assists.

Midfielder Tiffany Roberts returned to the form that earned her 79 appearances with the U.S. national team from 1994-1999. She played a specialized role for the Courage in 2001, neutralizing the opponent's most dangerous playmaker by essentially marking them out of the game. Roberts' performance did not escape the attention of U.S. national team coach April Heinrichs, who called the Carolina midfielder into consecutive camps following the season.

Newcomer Staci Burt captured national attention with her consistent play at the right back position. As one of only four players in the WUSA to log every minute of every game during the inaugural season, Burt was an ironwoman for the Courage and received a call-up to the U.S. national team late last year. Defender Staci Wilson, hampered by injury at the beginning of last year, demonstrated her grit and determination with workmanlike performances in the second half of the season. Goalkeeper Kristin Luckenbill played 12 games during her rookie campaign and became one of the best shot blockers in the WUSA.

In addition to a solid core of returning players from last season, head coach Marcia McDermott made significant upgrades to the Courage roster during the offseason with U.S. national team defender Danielle Slaton, German national team forward Birgit Prinz, and Norwegian national team midfielder Unni Lehn.

Slaton, the first overall pick in the 2002 WUSA Draft, will need to play a prominent role immediately as Overbeck will miss a portion of the season while recovering from offseason knee surgery. Prinz, who finished fourth in the 2001 FIFA Player of the Year voting, has the technical ability combined with the size and strength to become one of the WUSA's elite players. Prinz will miss a portion of the start of the season as she finishes her German club season. Lehn is a marvelous attacking midfielder who works well with countrywoman Hege Riise on the national team.

New York Power
Head Coach: Pat Farmer
2001 Finish: 9-7-5 (32 points), third place, lost in WUSA playoff semifinals
Key Returning Players: F Tiffeny Milbrett, M Sara Whalen, D Christie Pearce, GK Gao Hong
New Players of Note: M Linda Ormen, F Anita Rapp, F Minna Mustonen, GK Saskia Webber
Key Players Departed: D Gro Espeseth, F Ann Kristin Aarones, D Nel Fettig

One of the most entertaining teams during the inaugural WUSA season, the New York Power featured quite possibly the most dominant female athlete on the planet in 2001. Although soccer is known as the ultimate team sport, Tiffeny Milbrett was unstoppable last year, leading the WUSA in scoring with 16 goals and three assists for 35 points. Milbrett brought home all of the hardware last season, winning the league's Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year awards.

How dominant was the U.S. national team star? Milbrett scored an amazing 53 percent of New York's goals. The Power captain was one of only three players to record a hat trick last year. In fact, the University of Portland product had four multiple-goal games during the 2001 season.

Following an offseason where she wreaked havoc on opposing countries' defenses while playing for the U.S. national team, Milbrett returns to lead the Power attack. She'll be joined by 5-10 Minna Mustonen, the Power's 2002 first-round draft pick from Finland. Tammy Pearman (3g,1a=7pts in 2000) will provide depth up front.

Midfielder Sara Whalen tied for the team lead in assists last year with five. Whalen was a vital for the Power, seeing time at three positions (forward, midfield and defense). Jennifer Lalor controlled play in the midfield for the Power after missing the first four games due to injury, and will be looked upon to provide leadership both on and off the field.

For the 2002 season, Norwegian national team regulars Linda Ormen and Anita Rapp are expected to bolster the Power attack. Ormen, 25, Norway's second leading scorer in 2001, will play an attacking role in the midfield for the Power. Rapp, 24, the all-time leading scorer at Oakland University in Michigan, provides another offensive option for the Power to take pressure off Milbrett.

The Power's back line is anchored by Kristy Whelchel and Ronnie Fair, with each player starting all 21 games in 2001. Defender Christie Pearce (2 assists in 2001) also had a strong year for the Power, but her 2001 season was cut short due to a knee injury. Pearce underwent successful surgery and is close to 100 percent for Saturday's opener.

Goalkeeper Gao Hong showed why she is considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world, with some spectacular saves. Gao finished third in the WUSA with 87 saves last season. The Power added former U.S. World Cup goalkeeper Saskia Webber to their roster during the offseason to spell Gao during the 2002 season. Look for Webber to see extensive playing time early while Gao recovers from offseason wrist surgery.

Philadelphia Charge
Head Coach: Mark Krikorian
2001 Finish: 9-8-4 (31 points), fourth place, lost in WUSA playoff semifinals
Key Returning Players: F Kelly Smith, M Liu Ailing, M Lorrie Fair, F Mandy Clemens, D Heather Mitts
New Players of Note: M Zhao Lihong, F Marinette Pichon
Key Players Departed: D Doris Fitschen, M/F Laurie Schwoy

With the youngest team in the league last year and few recognizable "name" players, many in the soccer community picked the Philadelphia Charge to finish in last place in the WUSA in 2001.

Head coach Mark Krikorian and his young team proved the skeptics wrong as the Charge earned the WUSA's fourth and final playoff berth with a 9-8-4 record. If not for an incredible comeback by the Atlanta Beat in the WUSA semifinals, Philadelphia might have landed a spot in Founders Cup I. With the memory of that playoff loss at Atlanta still stinging, the Charge head into season number two full of optimism.

Offensively, the Charge return their leading scorer from last year, midfielder Liu Ailing, and one of the world's most dangerous forwards, Englishwoman Kelly Smith. Liu led the charge with 22 points (10g, 2a) last season, as Smith missed a number of games due to a fractured ankle. However, with a full season on the field this year, expect Smith to be one of the most potent scorers in the league.

Also, look for forward Mandy Clemens to be a force on the front line. Last year the duo of Smith and Clemens combined to score nine goals and record six assists in limited action. Clemens finished the season strong, scoring a goal and adding an assist in the Charge's semifinal loss. Krikorian stated in preseason that the former Santa Clara star was the best player during early training sessions.

With the departure of WUSA Defender of the Year Doris Fitschen to retirement, the Charge will have a great deal of work to do to make up for her absence on the back line. However, returning defenders Heather Mitts and Jenny Benson, along with goalkeeper Melissa Moore, will attempt to keep Philadelphia in the top half of the league in goals-allowed. Both Mitts and Benson had minor offseason knee surgery and are now 100 percent. Moore will again be the Charge's top keeper. Last season she earned the No.1 spot over Saskia Webber, who was traded to the New York Power during the offseason. Moore posted a miniscule 1.03 goals-against average (3rd in the WUSA) in 10 games a season ago.

Erica Iverson is scheduled to try and fill Fitschen's role in the middle of the defense, and the UMass product is expected to be ready opening day after recovering from a preseason foot injury. Look for rookie Karyn Hall out of Florida to join Jen Tietjen in the center of the defense if Iverson is not yet 100 percent.

In the midfield, Philadelphia boasts one of the top players on the U.S. Women's national team in Lorrie Fair. Fair was the youngest member of the 1999 Women's World Cup championship squad and brings a wealth of experience to the squad. This season Fair will be aided by newcomer Zhao Lihong, a teammate of Ailing's on China's national team who many coaches consider the best attacking outside player in the world.

Although Philadelphia led the WUSA in scoring at 1.67 goals per game in 2001, the Charge offense also adds French national team forward/midfielder Marinette Pichon. With Pichon, Smith, Liu and Clemens, Philadelphia could eclipse last year's WUSA-high of 35 goals.

San Diego Spirit
Head Coach: Carlos Juarez
2001 Finish: 7-7-7 (28 points), fifth place
Key Returning Players: F Shannon MacMillian, D Joy Fawcett, M Julie Foudy, GK Jaime Pagliarulo, F Mercy Akide, D Fan Yunjie, M Shannon Boxx
New Players of Note: F Zhang Ouying, M Lori Lindsey
Key Players Departed: GK Bente Nordby, D Wen Lirong

With world-class stars such as Julie Foudy, Shannon MacMillan, Fan Yunjie and Joy Fawcett, the San Diego Spirit was considered by many in the soccer community to be among the elite teams during the inaugural WUSA season. After a slow start, the Spirit made a late run for a playoff spot that was ultimately decided on the final weekend of the 2001 season.

San Diego finished in fifth place at 7-7-7, three points shy of the final playoff berth. The loss of U.S. national team defender Fawcett, who missed the first 14 games of the season while her third child was born, was more prominent than originally expected. Without Fawcett in the starting lineup, San Diego went 4-7-4. With her in the starting lineup, the Spirit was 3-0-3, including wins over both teams that reached the inaugural WUSA championship game (San Jose and Atlanta).

Although the Spirit did not qualify for the playoffs, San Diego fans came out in full force as the club sold out 93 percent of its seating capacity, including five capacity crowds.

MacMillan (12g, 6a=30pts) was the runaway team MVP in 2001, leading the Spirit in scoring and finishing second in the WUSA scoring race. More recently, she had an incredible offseason with the U.S. national team, scoring seven of the Americans' eight goals at the Algarve Cup in Portugal. MacMillan combines with skillful Nigerian forward Mercy Akide (4g, 4a=12pts), the 2000 African Female Player of the Year, and newcomer Zhang Ouying from China's national team to give the Spirit three major scoring threats.

Also, Shauna Rohbock, an alternate on the U.S. women's bobsledding team at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake, may be the most athletic player in the WUSA. Rohbock scored opportunistic goals during preseason to earn a spot on the roster. Team captain Foudy, whose seven assists tied for fourth in the WUSA, was the focal point of the opposing teams' defensive tactics in almost every match.

Adding the hardness to the midfield was Shannon Boxx (3g, 5a=11pts). The ironwoman of the Spirit, Boxx started all 21 matches and led the team in fouls suffered and fouls committed. Top draft pick Lori Lindsey, a two-time ACC Player of the Year at Virginia, will learn from Foudy and should see significant playing time as the season progresses.

On the back line, the Spirit boasted two of China's greatest players, defenders Fan Yunjie and Wen Lirong, forming a "Great Wall" in the center of the defense in 2001, but the 32-year-old Wen retired during the offseason due to an eye injury. San Diego will have Fawcett back in 2002 for the whole season.

Adding depth to the back line are three rugged defenders in Rhiannon Tanaka, Margaret Tietjen and Kim Pickup. Tanaka continued her rise as a top defender in the WUSA with solid performances in 17 games last year. Tietjen showed glimpses of a wonderful career, as she proved effective as an attacking force, finishing tied for second on the team with five assists. Pickup was the master of the "Pick-Flip" throw-in. She delighted WUSA crowds with her acrobatics and hustle. Goalkeeper Jaime Pagliarulo developed into one of the finest young netminders in the country and will anchor the defense once again. In 2001, she started 15 matches and earned a reputation for making big saves with a dramatic flair.

San Jose CyberRays
Head Coach: Ian Sawyers
2001 Finish: 11-6-4 (37 points), WUSA Champions
Key Returning Players: F Katia, M Sissi, M Tisha Venturini-Hoch, D Kelly Lindsey, D Brandi Chastain, GK LaKeysia Beene
New Players of Note: F Pretinha, D Michelle French
Key Players Departed: F Julie Murray

The inaugural WUSA season was a bit of a roller coaster ride for the San Jose CyberRays. Fortunately for the club, the ride ended with the team coming out on top.

After starting the season 1-4-1 and the CyberRays mired in seventh place, Head coach Ian Sawyers made the necessary adjustments in strategy and to the club's lineup as the team finished 10-2-3 during the regular season. The CyberRays stormed into the playoffs, defeating New York 3-2 in the semifinals before winning the inaugural WUSA Founders Cup in a penalty kick shootout over the Atlanta Beat following a 3-3 draw during regulation play.

Given its experience and depth, San Jose's finish was not surprising. Eight CyberRays had World Cup experience, five had appeared in the Olympic Games and 12 had seen action for their respective national team.

Following a slow start that saw the CyberRays defense allow 10 goals in the club's first five games in 2001, the defense regrouped and eventually finished second in WUSA team defense, allowing just 1.10 goals per game during the regular season. Led by U.S. national team standout Brandi Chastain (2g, 5a=9pts) and rising star Kelly Lindsey, the San Jose defense also saw the emergence of goalkeeper LaKeysia Beene. The Notre Dame product was named WUSA Goalkeeper of the Year after setting league standards for consecutive shutout games (six) and shutout minutes (624). She led the league with 95 saves, a save percentage of 83.3 and a 66.7 winning percentage.

With the defense bolstered by Thori Bryan, Australian national team starter Dianne Alagich, first-round draft pick Danielle Borgman and offseason acquisition Michelle French from Washington, Chastain may move into the midfield for the 2002 season. With the addition of French, the team now has five defenders who have played for their national teams in a World Cup or the Olympics.

With the retirement of Australian forward Julie Murray (9g, 1a=19pts), the CyberRays lost both their leading scorer and the Most Valuable Player of the 2001 WUSA Championship Game. But the club has not lost a step in its quest to defend its inaugural WUSA title and keep the Founders Cup in San Jose.

In an offseason trade with Washington, the CyberRays acquired Brazilian forward Pretinha (5g, 2a=12pts), Washington's second-leading scorer in 2001. Pretinha will join forward Katia (7g, 1a=15pts) and midfielder Sissi (1g, 10a=12pts), one of three CyberRays on the 2001 All-WUSA first team, to give the San Jose attack a distinctly Brazilian flavor. Tisha Venturini-Hoch (3g, 3a=9pts) and Carey Dorn, who played her way into a starting position last year with superb marking skills, joins Sissi in the midfield. Forward Christina Bell (2g, 4a=8pts) became a starter in midseason and was a key factor in the team's climb from last place to a first-place tie by year's end.

Washington Freedom
Head Coach: Jim Gabarra
2001 Finish: 6-12-3 (21 points), seventh place (tie)
Key Returning Players: F Mia Hamm, M Monica Gerardo, D/M Jen Grubb, M Anne Makinen, M/D Bai Jie, G Siri Mullinix, D Lindsay Stoecker
New Players of Note: M Pu Wei, D Steffi Jones, F Abby Wambach
Key Players Departed: F Pretinha, D/M Michelle French, M Amanda Cromwell, F Roseli

Picked by many soccer experts to finish at the top of the WUSA standings in 2001, the Washington Freedom had high expectations and jumped out to a solid start, sitting in first place in early June with a 4-2-2 record. However, injuries plagued Washington during the second half of the season, and the Freedom went 2-10-1 during the club's final 13 games to finish with a 6-12-3 (21pts) record, good for seventh place in the WUSA.

International scoring legend Mia Hamm (6g, 4a=16pts) was the team's most potent offensive threat, leading the Freedom in scoring, goals, total shots taken, shots on goal, and finishing second in assists. Also, most WUSA fans don't know that Hamm actually hit the post or crossbar a WUSA-high seven times in 2001, coming inches away from ranking among the league's top scorers. After suffering through shoulder and knee injuries in 2001, Hamm is expected to be 100 percent by the start of May following offseason knee surgery.

Attacking midfielder Monica Gerardo (2 goals in 2001) made a name for herself for her fearless and aggressive play, and is expected to be a bigger factor this year. Finnish midfielder Anne Makinen, the 2000 College Player of the Year at Notre Dame, now has a season of professional experience and should create even more scoring opportunities from the center of the field.

In lightning fast and creative midfielder/defender Bai Jie (5g, 2a=12pts), the Freedom has one of China's greatest players. Bai was second in goals scored for the Freedom last year and is expected to increase her scoring output in 2002. Jen Grubb, who led the Freedom in games started, played, and total minutes last year, emerged as one of the top defensive midfielders in women's soccer.

On the back line, defenders Lindsay Stoecker, Skylar Little, and Emmy Barr will be looked upon to build on their experience from significant minutes last year. Goalkeeper Siri Mullinix is expected to rebound strongly from offseason shoulder surgery, but she will not be 100 percent by opening day. Backup keeper Erin Fahey also is out with a hip flexor injury. Look for third string goalkeeper Dawn Greathouse, who has looked solid in preseason exhibition matches, to start on opening day.

Head coach Jim Gabarra realized that major roster moves were needed to turn the Freedom into one of the WUSA's elite teams. At the top of the list of newcomers are China's Pu Wei, Germany's Steffi Jones and Abby Wambach, the NCAA's leading scorer a year ago who the Freedom took with the second pick in the 2002 WUSA Draft. The 21-year-old Pu started every game for China during the 1999 Women's World Cup and should help generate plenty of scoring chances from her attacking midfield position. Jones, 29, who has dual citizenship since her father is a U.S. serviceman, brings international experience and leadership to an inexperienced Freedom back line.

Although Gabarra downplayed his expectations of Wambach during the preseason, look for the 5-10, Rochester, New York native to see plenty of playing time early on while Hamm is still recovering from knee surgery. In fact, Wambach scored in her first preseason game, a 2-1 victory over Carolina March 9 and looked dangerous throughout the preseason.



WUSA kicks off second season with higher expectations

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