The U.S. players countered the speed and strength of the Nigerian team tonight with a blinding flurry of goals. They responded to the multicolored hairdos of the showy Nigerian team with a few red, white and blue 'dos of their own. And they overcame an early Nigerian lead to run away with a 7-1 victory in this first-round Women's World Cup match, which all but assured the U.S. team a berth in the quarterfinal round.
In the game's first two minutes, as Nigeria took the lead on a sliding goal by Nkiru Okosieme, the U.S. players appeared to be in trouble. The rest of the night, they appeared to be having the time of their lives in front of a sellout crowd of 65,080 at Soldier Field.
"Once we got our first goal, the momentum started going for us," midfielder Kristine Lilly said. "The momentum just kept going and going and going."
Five U.S. players contributed goals. Forward Tiffeny Milbrett scored two goals and 33-year-old Michelle Akers, the team's oldest player, scored once to extend her all-time record for Women's World Cup goals to 11. The U.S. team tallied a Women's World Cup record of six goals in one half. Three came in one four-minute first-half stretch and three during another 10-minute span.
"It's nothing but a complete adrenaline rush," Milbrett said. "It makes you play beyond the level you usually do. That's why the first half was as crazy and wild as it was."
The Nigerians celebrated their opening goal by leaping into a pile at one end of the field, but it wasn't long before Nigerian goalkeeper Ann Chiejine stood waving her hands at her defenders as if pleading for help. After the match, she blamed them. "Most of the goals were not my fault," said Chiejine, who wore a brightly colored scarf over her silver hair. "There was nothing I could do. We were not marking [the U.S. players]. That is why they have the space to penetrate."
Once Nigeria's Ifeanyichukwu Chiejine deflected a free kick by Mia Hamm into the net for the first U.S. goal, the other U.S. scores followed as rapidly as coins spilling out of a slot machine. Hamm ended the night with one goal and one assist. Cindy Parlow scored one goal and had two assists; Kristine Lilly had a goal and an assist. Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy each received credit for an assist.
Although the U.S. team has not mathematically clinched a quarterfinal berth, the team is likely to advance to Thursday's quarterfinal at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium. The United States plays North Korea in the final first-round match for both teams Sunday in Foxboro, Mass.
To think Women's World Cup President Marla Messing thought she had lucked out merely with the sellout crowd and the gorgeous weather for this first-round match. The fans, decked out in Mia Hamm jerseys and USA colors, seemed thoroughly entertained by the high-scoring blowout.
Nigerian Coach Ismaila Mabo was not.
"We need to ensure that we put this bitter experience in the back of our minds," Mabo said.
The Nigerians brought their array of striking hairstyles fashioned by team Chiejine, who doubles as the squad's hairdresser. For the United States, Kate Sobrero, Shannon MacMillan and Saskia Webber sported red, white and blue streaks. Lorrie Fair dyed her hair red, and Christie Pearce painted her ponytail red, white and blue. The U.S. players also wore those colors on their fingernails and toenails, which they painted before their opening victory last weekend over Denmark.
In the match's second minute, Okosieme scored on a sliding shot in front of the goal after U.S. defenders Sobrero and Joy Fawcett couldn't clear a loose ball. That quieted the crowd and seemed to stun the American players, who were almost scored on again just minutes later, after defenders Chastain and Carla Overbeck collided in front of the goal.
The U.S. team (2-0) bumbled around for several minutes, looking vulnerable. Or perhaps Nigeria (1-1), which defeated North Korea last Sunday, looked shockingly strong. Whatever the case, the own goal righted the wobbly U.S. team.
That score was the first of three U.S. goals in four minutes. Hamm, who was tackled hard and repeatedly by her Nigerian marker Kikelomo Ajaya, followed Akers's score by drilling a right-footed shot into the top of the net a minute later. Completing the trio in the 23rd minute, Milbrett punched a rebound in for her first goal of the Women's World Cup. She scored again on a feed from Parlow in the 83rd minute.
The U.S. team scored with a barrage of headers. Lilly headed in a free kick from Hamm, landing flat on her stomach in the 32nd minute. Akers performed the same trick seven minutes later, tapping in a header and celebrating by pounding the turf, which is where she landed. Parlow then knocked in a diving header of her own.
"There is no panic on this team," U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco said. "They were very focused and very determined and showed how well they can play."
BRAZIL 2, ITALY 0: In tonight's early match in front of a crowd of about 40,000, midfielder Sissi scored two goals -- giving her five in two games -- to lead Brazil (2-0) to a victory and berth in the quarterfinals. Italy (0-1-1) put pressure on Brazil's defense but failed to convert scoring chances, including a penalty kick by Antonella Carta in the first half that goalkeeper Maravilha smothered.
CAPTION: Mia Hamm slides into the U.S. bench after scoring her first goal. "Once we got our first goal, the momentum starting going for us," said Kristine Lilly, who had a goal and an assist.
CAPTION: Michelle Akers, 33, the U.S. team's oldest, most experienced player, celebrates her goal in 39th minute. The score extended her all-time mark for Women's World Cup goals to 11.
CAPTION: Tom Valenti of Woodridge, Ill., roots for his favorite U.S. player. A crowd of 65,080 watched at Soldier Field.
CAPTION: Tiffeny Milbrett (16) gets hug after scoring third U.S. goal in four minutes.