It seemed as hot as an Atlanta summer night at Foxboro Stadium. Perhaps it was appropriate that the U.S. women's national soccer team turned back the clock for its 3-0 victory over North Korea in its final first-round match of the Women's World Cup by letting a pair of reserves who starred in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta replay a few moments of glory.
It was just like old times. Gold medalist Tisha Venturini scored two goals on assists from fellow '96 starter Shannon MacMillan, who added a goal of her own, as the United States tuned up for its Thursday quarterfinal against Germany at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium.
The two players, each of whom has recently suffered the disappointment of demotion, sparkled tonight and then paused to celebrate. Venturini provided a cartwheel and a back flip after her second goal, and MacMillan slid headfirst along the turf.
"It felt like I was back to myself -- even better than in the Olympics," said MacMillan, who started at forward. "The great thing about it is, the reserves really stepped up. It felt awesome to be in front of such a great crowd."
The victory in front of 50,484 -- about 8,000 short of a sellout -- was essentially meaningless for the United States. For the United States not to win Group A, it would have had to lose by five goals to the North Koreans -- an unlikely scenario. The United States was already ensured a quarterfinal position when Nigeria defeated Denmark, 2-0. Nigeria will play Brazil in the other quarterfinal at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium.
Though the match lacked significance, it did wonders for the sentimental crowd. As MacMillan took questions from reporters on a small stage just outside the stadium after the game, the fans who crowded outside metal barriers -- and a thousand or so stayed -- screamed her name and cheered. Venturini, who started at midfield, was not available for comment, as she had been randomly selected for the standard post-match drug test.
With the United States' place in the quarterfinals ensured, U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco gave midfielder Michelle Akers the night off. Starters Mia Hamm, Cindy Parlow, Julie Foudy and Tiffeny Milbrett each played one half, with Foudy and Milbrett entering the game in the second half. DiCicco also put 1996 Olympic Games starter Tiffany Roberts in the opening lineup tonight.
MacMillan led the '96 Olympic team in scoring with three goals. Venturini had two. MacMillan had the game-winning goal vs. Norway in the semifinals. Venturini hit the game-winner vs. Denmark in an earlier match.
In recent months, both players have stayed involved despite their altered roles. Venturini has been so enthusiastic from the sidelines, she has earned the unofficial title of "bench captain." MacMillan -- who perhaps made a case that she deserves to be a starter -- has been among the most colorful U.S. players, applying red, white and blue polish to her nails and dye to her hair, just like many of the team's less experienced players.
"I'm ready to do whatever it takes to help the team, whether I'm starting, or coming off the bench, or not playing at all," MacMillan said.
MacMillan opened the scoring in the 56th minute, taking a pass from Foudy at the top of the box and ripping a right-footed shot just between North Korean goalkeeper Yong Sun Kye and the left post.
Minutes earlier, during halftime, DiCicco had urged his team to avoid posting the first scoreless tie of the Women's World Cup.
"A goal the quality of Shannon MacMillan's would make any coach feel like he said the right thing," DiCicco said. "She made a statement that she wants in the lineup today, and that's great. Tisha did, too."
In the 68th minute, MacMillan directed a cross from the left side toward Venturini, who dived and punched a header into the goal. Just eight minutes later the pair connected again, MacMillan chopping a free kick into the penalty area and Venturini banging another header past the North Korean keeper.
"Tisha is such an amazing header," MacMillan said. "I told her before the game, I said, `Tish, we're both in there, and I'm looking for you.' "
The North Koreans' best opportunities came in the second half, but U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry turned back every one. Her most impressive series of this tournament came in the 69th minute, when she turned back two straight point-blank shots, then dived on a loose ball in front of the goal. She handled everything the North Koreans threw at her, keeping the U.S. team comfortably ahead.
With victories in its three first-round games, the United States moves to the elimination rounds with confidence soaring.
ITALY 2, MEXICO 0: Mexico bowed out of its first Women's World Cup with its third straight defeat, but one that was far more palatable than its earlier losses by scores of 6-0 and 7-1. Mexico, whose roster was bolstered by 13 players with ties to the United States, will return home with the future of its young women's soccer program in jeopardy because of its poor performance, the worst in the 16-team field.
"It was almost like jumping from kindergarten to the university level to come to this World Cup," Mexican Coach Leonardo Cuellar said. "I think it's very important that we develop more players in Mexico."
Italy, which also failed to advance to the quarterfinals, scored on goals by Patrizia Panico in the 37th minute and Paola Zanni in the 51st.
CAPTION: Tisha Venturini, middle, has an up-close view after heading in goal in second half against North Korea. Venturini's other goal also came off a header.
CAPTION: U.S. reserve Shannon MacMillan is stopped on this shot, but she opened the scoring with a goal in the 56th minute.