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U.S. Women's Soccer Team Wins Gold

By William Gildea
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Aug. 2, 1996; Page A01

ATHENS, Ga., Aug. 1—The U.S. women's Olympic soccer team tonight kicked up still more nationwide interest in the world's most popular sport. The Americans defeated China, 2-1, to win the gold medal in the first Olympics to include women's soccer. The historic match was witnessed by a record women's soccer crowd of 76,481 at Sanford Stadium and a global television audience that saw at least part of the nonstop action.

The decisive play came with about 22 minutes left, when Mia Hamm, a Lake Braddock High School graduate, passed down the right side to Joy Fawcett, who outran defender Xie Huilin and slid a perfect centering pass to Tiffeny Milbrett, who had beaten defender Liping Wang to the front of the net. China's goalkeeper, Gao Hong, had no chance, diving futilely to her right with Milbrett's shot already past her and into the net. The roar that went up must have matched any heard by this stadium's customary home team, the University of Georgia's football Bulldogs.

The U.S. players closed out the most anticipated women's soccer game ever by carrying and waving American flags as they circled the picture-perfect grass field in a victory celebration they would never forget. The highest Olympic and international soccer officials paid tribute to the smiling Americans during the medal ceremonies that concluded the hard-played, suspenseful struggle.

Tonight's gold strike was just the latest shining moment for U.S. soccer. The United States won the inaugural Women's World Cup in 1991 in China, where the previous record attendance of 65,000 was set. The best men in the game won countless U.S. fans for the sport during the highly successful U.S.-hosted 1994 World Cup. With tonight's victory, the American women achieved their ambitious goal of winning the first Olympic gold medal.

They also have helped swell the remarkable attendance at Olympic soccer matches. Men and women have combined to attract more than 1.2 million spectators in the last week and a half, including 222,000 at six dates in Washington's RFK Stadium. (Orlando, Birmingham and Miami also hosted early-round matches.) The top women continue to attract a growing following, with 41 percent of those competing in U.S. organized youth soccer leagues being girls.

"The Americans have five, six million players to pick from and they have amazing skills and speed," said Norway's coach, Even Pellerud, whose team won the 1995 Women's World Cup and the Olympic bronze tonight, beating Brazil, 2-0. But the U.S. team edged Norway in overtime here Sunday, 2-1, in overtime. "We have been competing with the United States for about the last seven, eight years to be the best in the world," Pellerud said. "Our problem is we don't have as many players to choose from."

Shannon MacMillan, who scored the winning goal against Norway in the semifinals, gave the United States the early lead tonight, following up a shot by Hamm that hit the post. Kristine Lilly—who played last summer for the Washington Warthogs, a men's professional indoor team—gave the Americans their scoring position with a crossing pass from the left side. Hamm fired hard, the ball bounced off Gao's hands, struck the right post and bounced in front to an undefended MacMillan.

A charged-up MacMillan then was stopped in close in the 20th minute as the U.S. team dominated for the first 23 minutes. But they seemed to tire after that, and China took control for much of the rest of the first half. Liu Ying broke through in the 24th minute, but was shut off at the last moment by three U.S. defenders. That was a hint of China's suddenly awakened offense.

Milbrett slowed the Chinese temporarily by dribbling half the length of the field in the 29th minute, passing neatly to Hamm, who continued dribbling through traffic before the Chinese regained control. Three minutes later China tied the score. And in a classic example of the potpourri of Olympic action, they did it as Michael Johnson was setting his 200-meter world record at Atlanta's Olympic Stadium.

A cheer went up among many fans at Sanford Stadium who were tuned into Johnson's race, creating the oddity of a positive reaction from American fans as China attacked furiously. The goal came as Sun Wen gently lifted the ball over the head of goalkeeper Briana Scurry, who was coming out to meet her. Brandi Chastain tried to catch up with the slow-rolling ball but failed to knock it off course.

So it was that the cheer for Johnson turned to a groan for the U.S. soccer team.

China kept up its pressure in the second half, and 15 minutes in, Scurry had to come out diving to stop a shot by Sun Qingmei, who broke open down the middle. But the Americans regained their early-game stride, with Hamm's threat in the 62nd minute when she dribbled around Gao only to be denied by Xie.

But the U.S. team brilliantly, and decisively, kept the action in front of Gao with three more strong forays that China's defenders were hard-pressed to contain and finally couldn't on the winning play, Hamm to Fawcett to Milbrett.

In the final moments, Hamm, who had been hampered for the past week with a sore left ankle, was carried from the field on a stretcher. But her efforts were rewarded in moments when another great cheer erupted. The game had ended. Hamm made it slowly on to the field with a few teammates surrounding her, as the others charged past to celebrate Olympic victory 1996.

© 1996 The Washington Post Company

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