U.S. Advances to Women's World Cup Soccer Final
By Amy Shipley
PALO ALTO, Calif., July 4 – Michelle Akers received two pints of fluid intravenously after today's match. She had a bloody gash on her right knee, reddish cleat imprints on her forehead and cheek and medical tape on her left hand. She addressed reporters sitting in a chair, because she was too fatigued to stand up.
The United States defeated Brazil, 2-0, in front of 73,123 at Stanford Stadium to advance to Saturday's Women's World Cup final in Pasadena, Calif., where the Americans will play China. After today's semifinal victory, Akers was the U.S. team personified: aching, exhausted – and joyful.
"It is sweet," Akers said. "I just want to savor the moment. This World Cup for us has been a battle. To win on guts and determination, that's always nice."
From the start of this international tournament June 19, the United States has been favored to land in the championship game at the Rose Bowl. A successful run by the United States figured to be vital to the commercial success of the tournament, which has drawn about twice as many fans at the U.S. team matches compared with games not involving the Americans. More than 60,000 tickets have been sold for next week's final, but tournament organizers want a sellout crowd of nearly 90,000.
The U.S. players, who looked more weary today than in any of their previous four victories, have carried the immense burden of keeping the tournament flourishing – while also fulfilling their own goal of going farther than they did in the 1995 Women's World Cup. In that tournament, they were upset by Norway in the semifinals.
"This was probably the most nerve-racking game, the semifinal," U.S. forward Mia Hamm said. "We just wanted to get there. We were a tired group. We just gutted through some stuff."
The U.S. team leaned on goalkeeper Briana Scurry, who had three huge saves and played her usual steady, smart game. Scurry dived to knock away a rifle shot from Nene early in the second half and punched a Prentinha ball just over the goal in the 83rd minute. She also made many heady judgments that kept the Brazilians from getting close.
"The MVP of the game," Brazil Coach Wilson Oliveira Rica said, "was Briana Scurry."
The deciding goal was a header by U.S. forward Cindy Parlow just five minutes into the match. But U.S. players didn't feel secure until Akers scored on a penalty kick in the 80th minute. The penalty kick was set up, indirectly, by Akers, who headed a goal kick beautifully to Hamm on the dead run. Hamm dribbled the ball into the penalty area, where she was tripped from behind by Brazil's Elane. The referee called the foul, and Akers – who has been the U.S. team's penalty-kick specialist for years – easily stroked the ball in the upper-right corner.
"After the game, I was just walking off the field, saying to myself: 'She is a hero,'" Hamm said of Akers.
The mere fact Akers was playing that late in the second half was noteworthy, as she often can go only one half, or less, because of her battle with chronic fatigue syndrome, a disorder that struck her early in the decade and causes mysterious and unpredictable bouts of extreme exhaustion.
Adding to her difficulties, Akers endured a brutal first half. She was hit in the back of the head in the 24th minute and spiked in the forehead in the 33rd. Both collisions left her writhing in pain on the grass field and required she step to the sideline briefly. Akers began the game with a sore right shoulder, injured when a fan accidentally yanked on her arm after last Sunday's match against North Korea.
"You get to the point where you get so beat up that another ding is not going to stop you," Akers said. "I've learned how to kind of just put it behind me and focus on the job at hand."
Akers, 33, is the oldest national team player and the most experienced. She scored the first goal for the national team in 1985. She starred in the 1991 Women's World Cup, scoring a tournament-high 10 goals as a forward. She now directs the midfield for the United States.
"In '91, there wasn't even a player you could put in the same sentence with her," U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco said. "She dominated the game so much. ...
"Now, she doesn't stand necessarily above the crowd, but she's assumed this role. She inspires her teammates, and me and the staff, and I think she's starting to inspire a lot of America."
Judging by the rapidity with which the U.S. team scored its first goal, the first half seemed likely to be a high-scoring affair. But the United States had a surprisingly tough time maneuvering offensively against Brazil, which seemed to have learned from its quarterfinal Thursday, in which it gave up three second half goals to the Nigerians.
But in the fifth minute, midfielder Julie Foudy sent a cross from the left side Brazilian goalkeeper Maravilha let bounce off her hands. Parlow, just feet from the keeper, punched in the deflection with her head.
The entire match was marked by sluggish play, perhaps because both teams made cross-country trips Friday, a day after winning their quarterfinals at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium. When the referee finally signaled the end, the Americans gathered at the center of the field and exchanged not leaping high fives, but grounded hugs. They looked completely spent.
"We don't feel surprised, but we do feel some relief," DiCicco said. "This is what we said all along: We want to be in the final. We want to win the gold medal."
Brazil 0 0--0 United States 1 1--2
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