United States 2, Germany 1
The symbolism is too obvious to overstate. Mia Hamm, the iconic star of the U.S. women's soccer team, ran down the right wing, hanging on to the ball. Heather O'Reilly, who not long ago was one of the thousands of kids with posters of Hamm on her wall, ran toward the goal.
Hamm, 32, has been in this situation countless times with dozens of different women on the other end, so she did what comes naturally. She laced a pass to O'Reilly -- from the foundation to the future -- and the 19-year-old shot the ball into the net, the goal that gave the United States a 2-1 overtime victory over Germany on Monday evening at Pankritio Stadium, putting the Americans one victory from an Olympic gold medal.
The goal and the victory said so much about this team, which -- after Thursday's gold medal game against Brazil in Athens -- will be bequeathed by veteran players such as Hamm, who built the sport to prominence, to players such as O'Reilly, who grew up admiring them.
The U.S. women overcame the loss of captain Julie Foudy, who left in the 65th minute and departed the stadium on crutches, her right ankle tightly wrapped. They overcame a game-tying goal from Germany's Isabell Bachor in the second minute of injury time, a tally that could have been demoralizing.
And they overcame the memory of their last game against Germany, a 3-0 loss in the semifinals of the women's World Cup last fall. For more than six months, the Americans have trained together to put that loss behind them.
In the moments before the game, U.S. Coach April Heinrichs -- for the first time -- felt it necessary to bring up the women who have been together since the first women's World Cup, back in 1991. She reminded Abby Wambach, Shannon Boxx, Lindsay Tarpley, O'Reilly and others not to let down Foudy, Hamm, Joy Fawcett, Brandi Chastain and Kristine Lilly.
Of those five, Fawcett, Foudy and Hamm have said they plan to retire from international competition after the Games.
"She doesn't even have to say it," O'Reilly said. "It's in our minds all the time."
Thus, the pass from Hamm to O'Reilly shows everything anybody needs to know about this team. It doesn't matter who gets it done, just that it happens. The team's motto has become, "It's not every four years. It's every day."
Heinrichs and others say O'Reilly embodies that ideal, whether she's starting or coming off the bench or practicing or just screaming cheers. On Monday night, O'Reilly was inserted in the 75th minute, and immediately began scooting about the field like a jitterbug on uppers. The United States was staked to a 1-0 lead on the strength of a goal from Lilly -- her third goal in as many games, off a deft touch from Wambach -- in the first half. O'Reilly's mission was to counterattack the Germans, who were pressing forward in an effort to tie the game.
But before the United States could kill the clock, Germany got its goal from Bachor, a blast that deflected off defender Fawcett and past goalkeeper Briana Scurry. The berth in the gold medal game turned into the tenuous prospect of overtime.
"It is deflating," Wambach said. "But the wonderful thing about this team is we can come back from that, and that's what's special, and that's what we know, and that's what we believe. We believed that we could do it."
When the veterans -- Hamm and Fawcett were among those to play all 120 minutes -- came to the sideline to stretch before overtime, they were met with a youthful exuberance that defines the generation gap.
"They tie the game in five minutes of extra time," Hamm said, "and not one of their faces looked like we were beaten."
Certainly not O'Reilly. Just two minutes into overtime, she found herself on the left wing, with German goalkeeper Silke Rottenberg challenging her. She made a move, freed herself, had a wide-open net -- and hit the post.
"I was pretty upset about it," O'Reilly said, "but you've got to forget about things like that."
So she did. Five minutes later, Hamm took a feed from Wambach, and barreled down the right wing. She had watched tape of the loss to Germany last year, and noticed that the only way to get the disciplined German defense to crack was to draw defenders to her by holding the ball. She did that, and then threaded the pass.
Now, the Americans will face Brazil, which beat Sweden on Monday, 1-0, in an interesting rematch of a game from the preliminary round. The United States won, 2-0, on Aug. 14, but played a horrendous first half. Afterward, Brazilian Coach Rene Simoes accused the Americans of intentionally playing a dirty game.
The U.S. women will try for their first major championship since the 1999 World Cup. During that tournament, which put the women's team on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated, O'Reilly was one of the kids in the stands of one game, at Giants Stadium in her native New Jersey. She is closer in age to Fawcett's oldest daughter than she is to Fawcett. She doesn't recognize the veterans' preferred songs from the '70s and '80s. Yet in this generational mix that is the U.S. women's team, she fits right in.
"I think the whole year, that's kind of been our focus," O'Reilly said. "What these women have done for the last 10 years, even more than that, has been so remarkable. This is it for some of them. As young players, we wouldn't be happy with putting them out in anything but a gold. This is one more step toward that."