United States slides into semifinals, 2-1

Wambach scores winner off controversial free kick in 59th minute to tip Japan

Women's Soccer

Athens Olympics 2004

August 21, 2004|By Grahame L. Jones | Grahame L. Jones,LOS ANGELES TIMES

THESSALONIKI, Greece - The United States swept into the semifinals of the Olympic women's soccer tournament last night with a convincing 2-1 victory over Japan at Kaftanzoglio Stadium.

Less convincing were the explanations given for the legitimate, but controversial, winning goal by Abby Wambach in the 59th minute.

It came off a free kick by Mia Hamm, who sent the ball in from the left flank.

The Japanese defenders moved forward on the kick to try to catch the Americans offside, and Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy and Wambach all were caught by the maneuver. Midfielder Shannon Boxx, however, timed her run better, controlling Hamm's free kick in front of Japanese goalkeeper Nozomi Yamago. Boxx then passed the ball back to Wambach, who ran it into the empty net.

According to FIFA's new interpretation of the offside rule, players who are in a passive position and not interfering with the play - in this case Lilly, Foudy and Wambach - should not be ruled offside.

The rule was applied, the goal stood and the Americans advanced to Monday's semifinal against Germany in Heraklio, Crete.

The surprise inclusion of defender Brandi Chastain in the U.S. starting lineup, after she had not played a minute in the previous three games, took second place to the bizarre circumstances surrounding the Americans' second goal, when there were four U.S. players going in unchallenged against goalkeeper Yamago.

Even the U.S. coaches and players were a bit surprised by it all.

"Offside is a gray area in the game of soccer," U.S. coach April Heinrichs said.

"We had like four people who could have scored, which is unheard of," goalkeeper Briana Scurry said.

Wambach said: "Shannon stayed onside, and she put all of us back onside. It was just a matter of her looking up and having that composure" to control the ball and not be flustered in front of the net. "She's the reason why we won this game."

Japan coach Eiji Ueda, forced to act as his own interpreter because FIFA and Olympic organizers failed to provide a Japanese-to-English translator, was gracious in defeat and absolved his players of any blame for the winning goal.

"The second goal by the USA was my responsibility," he said, explaining that at training the day before the match he had instructed his team to play the offside trap in the second half.

"So it was my responsibility," he said. "The players did their best."

As for whether Boxx was onside or offside, Ueda said he was not at the right angle to tell whether it was a good or bad call.

The United States took the lead in the 43rd minute on a fine individual effort by Lilly.

She beat two defenders and sprinted into the penalty area to the left of the net. Defender Hiromi Isozaki blocked Lilly's cross and the ball reached defender Homare Sawa, who took a swing at it but only half-connected as the ball popped into the air.

Yamago and U.S. midfielder Lindsay Tarpley, who started in place of Ali Wagner, went for the ball, which squirted free toward Lilly, who hit a right-footed shot into the back of the net.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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