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U.S. Women Poised for the Last Dance

Soccer Gold Is the Goal in Finale For Hamm, Foudy and Fawcett

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2004; Page D09

ATHENS, Aug. 25 -- Forget, for a moment, that this is it for three of the cogs of the U.S. women's soccer machine. The Americans came to Greece -- and have traveled the country, from Athens to Crete to Thessaloniki to Crete and back to Athens -- for one reason, and that is to win back the Olympic gold medal.

Yes, there will be some tears Thursday night, regardless of the outcome of the final of the Olympic women's soccer tournament, in which the United States faces Brazil at Karaiskaki Stadium. But before the players get all misty-eyed -- again -- about the impending retirements of Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett, they will keep the current task in perspective.


Women's soccer icon Mia Hamm and the U.S. team hope to take home the gold medal they missed out on in 2000 in Sydney. (Luca Bruno -- AP)


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"We do feel privileged to be on this team, to be able to play with these women," forward Abby Wambach said. "This may be their last go-around. We do have a sense of responsibility for them, but we also have the same responsibility for ourselves and our country."

That responsibility is to beat Brazil, whether it happens by using young players or old players or some combination thereof. The Americans faced the Brazilians in the second game of the tournament. Brazil dominated the United States in the first half, and only U.S. goalkeeper Brianna Scurry prevented the game from being a blowout, making save after save.

At halftime of that match, with the Americans lucky to be in a scoreless tie, they made a tactical adjustment, moving midfielder Kristine Lilly into more of an attacking position, and the Brazilians had difficulty adjusting. The Americans eventually got goals from Hamm, on a penalty kick, and Wambach in taking a 2-0 victory.

Afterward, though, Brazilian Coach Rene Simoes accused the Americans of using "dirty" tactics to turn things around. The U.S. players and coaching staff dismissed the theory immediately. Now, though, they will likely play for the gold medal with a referee that will pay extra attention to physical play.

No problem, the Americans say.

"This team reminds me a lot of the '96 group," Foudy said, remembering the team that won the first women's Olympic soccer tournament. "There's a lot of similarities. We talked about it before the first game. [We said], 'I don't give a [darn] what's thrown at us. Things will get thrown at us. If you stick together, and believe, you'll be fine.' "

For the most part, the United States has been fine, scoring 10 goals and allowing three in its five matches, of which it has won four and tied one, against Australia. Brazil began this tournament as something of a dark horse, not expected to reach the final instead of teams such as Germany (which lost to the United States in the semifinals), Sweden and China.

But the Brazilians' performance has been inspired. They have only allowed those two goals to the Americans, and have shut out each of their other opponents. Offensively, they have several players who can dance over the ball as if in a sidewalk carnival act. Forward Cristiane has five goals, and fellow forward Marta leads the tournament with 17 shots on goal. Should they play as they did in the first half of their first game against the United States, things could be difficult.

The Americans might have to counter without Foudy, who badly sprained her right ankle in the 2-1 overtime victory over Germany in the semifinals. A team spokesman said Wednesday that Foudy's ankle had vastly improved over the previous two days, but that a decision on whether she would play wouldn't be made until game time.

For all the deserved fanfare surrounding the U.S. team and the group that built it into what it is -- an era that will end, one way or the other, Thursday night -- the Americans are well aware that they have lost the past two international championships, finishing third in the World Cup last fall, and losing in a dramatic gold medal match in the 2000 Olympics to Norway.

So now, the moment, the opportunity, is here again, regardless of who's coming and who's going.

"This is what the Olympic spirit is about," Wambach said. "This is what we thrive on. This is what we strive to produce and create. And we've done it. Now, we have 90 minutes ahead of us."


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