Women face final leg of fantastic ride

Women's soccer final signals end of an era for U.S.

September 27, 2000|By John Eisenberg

SYDNEY, Australia - They're going to take a deep breath and gear up for one more game, one more bravura performance tomorrow night against Norway in the final of the women's Olympic soccer tournament. And then what?

"Could be the end of an era," said Julie Foudy, one of the mainstays of the United States women's soccer team.

Their names are as familiar as their faces by now, Foudy and Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain, all the players who have spent the past decade turning women's soccer from a nothing into a something in the United States, winning Olympic gold medals and World Cup titles.

It's been a remarkable ride that was unimaginable a decade ago, and it culminated with Chastain's penalty kick that defeated China in the World Cup final before a full house in the Rose Bowl and 40 million television viewers in 1999.

They're back together now to try to repeat their gold medal-winning performance from the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, and although it's a challenge and a feat, they can never top the magic of the World Cup, and they know it.

But they also know that this probably is their last major, worldwide competition together, and if there seems to be a vague sense of melancholy as a result, there is also a sense of them wanting to put the right finish on what they started a decade ago.

"I'm not thinking about the fact that this is my last game with the national team," said defender Carla Overbeck. "I'm thinking about what we have to do to win. We have dedicated so many years of our lives to this. We want to see it through."

Overbeck, 32, is a fitting metaphor for the team's current situation. She has played for the national team for a dozen years, starting as a college kid and growing into a fierce back-line anchor. Now she's married and has one child, and she wants to have another. She's all grown up.

"I want to be a mom for a while," she said.

Some of the team's other veterans aren't necessarily married or wanting to start families, but they have been at this for a long time, and the rest of their lives do beckon. Chastain and Joy Fawcett are 32. Foudy and Kristine Lilly are 29. Hamm is 28. Midfielder Michelle Akers, a true soccer pioneer, has retired at the age of 34.

"A lot of us who have been on the team for a long time are getting older, and the team is going to be changing, no question about it," Hamm said. "I just hope that while the personnel changes, the mentality stays the same."

That mentality?

"Never cutting corners and never being satisfied, no matter how much you accomplish," Hamm said.

It's a hard-edged, driving professionalism that came from, uh, just where, exactly?

"We debate that all the time," Foudy said with a laugh. "I think it's innate. Either you have that competitiveness or you don't, as we do as a group."

Said Hamm: "I think it started with the players who were there in the beginning, like Michelle [Akers]. Then it spread to our generation. Now it's the defining aspect of the team to those of us who are a part of it. Women's soccer is growing and there are a lot of talented teams now, so something has to separate us if we want to keep winning. Our strong mentality does that."

Certainly, if the team leaned at all toward self-satisfaction, it would have cratered after its World Cup triumph, which accomplished the near-impossible and gave the team respect and identity within America's male-dominated, ESPN-driven, couch-potato culture.

But here they are a year later, back in the spotlight and driving just as hard for a second gold medal to go with the one they won in Atlanta four years ago. It probably helps that there's a new coach, former Maryland coach April Heinrichs, and the stirrings of an influx of new blood, beginning with Siri Mullinix, a 22-year-old goalkeeper who has replaced World Cup hero Briana Scurry as the starter.

The Americans survived a bad draw, advancing out of a "Group of Death" round-robin pool that included Norway and China, their main rivals - they beat Norway and tied China - and defeating Brazil in a fierce, sloppy semifinal, 1-0, with Hamm scoring the goal.

It will be the eighth time the Americans have played Norway in 2000, including exhibitions, tours, tournaments and other competitions.

"No secrets left on either side, that's for sure," Overbeck said.

And what happens after the final whistle blows? Who knows? The next women's World Cup isn't until 2003, and the next Summer Olympics isn't until 2004. Everyone will be well into their 30s by then and quite possibly finished with the national team, although the start-up of a women's pro league in the United States next year will keep many on the field.

"Because of the league, there's a chance some of us might be around for the next go-round," Foudy said.

Some might make it, some probably won't. And that means tomorrow night's final probably represents the final steps for the national team that introduced women's soccer to America and made it all right for little boys to want to grow up and play like Mia Hamm.

"This team has accomplished so much," Hamm said. "And as always, regardless of the circumstances, we want more."

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