The soccer mom missed the tournament's first few games. But now the woman who first passed out the Dixie Cups with sugar water in them, the woman who drove the kid to practice who wound up witnessing history, heartbreak and everything in between, she's back in the stands.

Mia's mom wants to see her daughter's career through.

"I was just standing there, crying for her today," Stephanie Hamm said. "I watched her walk out before the match, and it just hit me. This is almost it for her."

It's winding down, this memorable journey of five core players who won a lot of soccer games, sold a lot of posters and ultimately changed how their gender's relationship with sport was viewed.

There is a belief out there that the U.S. women's soccer team needs gold to complete its pixie-dust path of the past 13 years. Because if the team fails, the thinking goes, then the memories of Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, Joy Fawcett and Kristine Lilly somehow will be tarnished. Dominance will have given way to their physical deterioration, and what kind of ending is that?

How about a dignified one, one in which a group of women approaching their mid-thirties and beyond weren't shelved for the next hot, young thing from the junior team?

The fab five all played 90 minutes in a sweltering Grecian sun Friday. They outplayed and beat Japan in the quarterfinals of the Olympic tournament, 2-1, summoning guile and grit from another era. (They also got a gift from a linesman who did not call the United States offside when it scored the winning goal, as television replays appeared to show.)

A return engagement with Germany, the team that knocked the Americans out in the World Cup semifinals a year ago, is on tap Monday on the island of Crete.

Victory puts them in their third gold medal match in three straight Olympics. A loss?

They'll be crestfallen, crushed, denied their perfect ending.

But either way, the beauty of this team is watching the old guard find it still has something left. While the rest of the world catches up to its talent in the same fashion of American men's basketball, the team continues to win. The players are physically beaten up but as yet unbowed.

Really, who wins a medal in any sport requiring real physical exertion at 36, the ages of Fawcett and Chastain?

Hamm, 32, bedazzled another nation, dribbling through multiple Japanese defenders. Lilly, 33, scored the match's first goal, punching in a bullet from about eight yards just before halftime.

No one put on makeup or prettied themselves up afterward. They boarded the team bus in damp hair and sandals. Just a bunch of aging jocks, who happened to be women.

"I feel 23," Foudy said, "give or take a few decades."

Time flies, no? Chastain peeled her jersey off and flashed the world her washboard abs in the last millennium, the day they captured America's genuine interest by winning the 1999 World Cup. Including the Olympics and the World Cup, this win over Japan means this group will have advanced to six final fours in 13 years. One gold, one silver, two World Cup championships.

Abby Wambach, the 24-year-old who scored the winning goal against Japan, was 11 when Hamm and her teammates won that first World Cup, almost anonymously, in 1991. The quintet has been around long enough to witness the birth and death of a women's professional league. And this is their last tournament together.

"I thought about it a lot today -- more than ever," goalkeeper Briana Scurry said.

Maybe you're preoccupied with Joe Gibbs's football team today. Or you can't get enough of the drama surrounding the U.S. men's basketball team. Maybe your baseball team is a few games out, and Olympic women's soccer is so beneath your radar you never made it this far.

It's understandable. The only time Mia Hamm and her teammates invade our national consciousness is every two years, for maybe a couple of weeks, when they advance to a Cup or Olympic final, and America goes ga-ga over all the little girls who took up soccer because of their heroes.

And then we go back to Yankees-Sox, Shaq or Kobe, fact or fiction, contender or pretender -- a sports world as immediate as it is inane.

It's not right or wrong; it's just who we are as a knee-jerk nation. Hamm cannot even muster nostalgia at this moment because she is so focused.

But on Monday or Thursday, that's it. The most visible player on women's sports' most visible team is done, along with Foudy and Fawcett.

Hamm may feel 32, but her fitness and economy of movement look to be peaking. You almost feel cheated about her retirement plans. She puts passes on the stubs of teammates' toes like Wayne Gretzky used to put passes on the nubs of his teammates' sticks in his last years, the way Magic Johnson still knew the dimensions of space and time even when his body betrayed him.

Selfishly, you want Mia Hamm to stick around.

Until the soccer mom reminds you that her daughter cannot be the movement's poster child forever.

"She has personal goals, things she wants to accomplish outside soccer," Stephanie Hamm said. "Being with her husband the way she wasn't able to in her first marriage, things like that. Those are all important to her."

Mr. Hamm, Nomar Garciaparra, recently said his wife's retirement was going to affect him, "because I really liked watching her play."

Almost 20 years, just like that. She and her teammates have at least 90 minutes left. Mia may not be nostalgic, but she's clearly in the minority.

"It'll be sad, but there'll be a sense of completion, too," Stephanie Hamm said, pausing to reflect on her daughter's career. "You know, I'm still amazed by her celebrity. I never saw that coming. But the women competing at this level, that was going to happen. They didn't need an audience for that."

American Mia Hamm slides in for the ball against Aya Shimokozuru in 2-1 win vs. Japan.