By Al Mattei


U.S. women's field hockey coach Tracey Belbin sent a message to her team in the midst of the three-week period of player selection for the national team pool: perform or else.

''If people are underperforming, we will not carry them,'' she said. ''That's happened in the past. Some have been great, but others have been a disappointment. They have to get better. I know they can play better. They just have to set their standards higher.''

In a nine-game stretch between late September and mid-January, the U.S. lost nine straight games.

Since then, the original pool of 26 players released by USA Field Hockey has seen some small changes. In recent weeks, the alternates -- Rachel Barger, Amy Herz, Jessica Coleman and goalkeeper Lisa Cellucci -- have not been on the game-day roster. Instead, Belbin has added one player who was not on that original list -- former Iowa standout striker Kristin Holmes.

Message received.

Team USA has been been hot to the point of conflagration since its disappointments of late 1999 and early 2000, winning seven straight games, including every friendly match in a home series against Canada and Ireland.

Not only have the Stars and Stripes won each game, they have dominated. Of the nearly 500 minutes played during the streak, the U.S. has never trailed.

Some roles have changed; in one recent stretch, team captain Tracey Fuchs -- one of the three or four best American players ever -- was scratched in four straight games. Collegians Kristin McCann, Tracey Larson, and Coleen Krieger have been given a fair shake at making the Milton Keynes qualification team.

Too, this team is transforming in other ways.

''We are going to be an attacking team,'' Belbin said. ''That's different than a lot of other teams around the world. But I believe it is a better way to play than defend and counteract.''

After shaking off a bad spiral, Team USA is looking to pounce on its opponents at the Olympic Qualifier. Most pundits peg the U.S. chances for the entire tournament on one date: March 23. That is the day the United States meets Germany -- the third-ranked team in the world -- in pool play.

If the Americans are able to get a point out of Germany, it will make the matches against India, Ireland, and Spain infinitely more winnable. These three games will be played in four days, meaning that any weakness will turn into a swoon, any strength will turn into a juggernaut.

That juggernaut just might be building right now.