Now it's U.S. goal: Win one for the pioneers

2-1 OT victory gives team shot to make final special for 5 from first World Cup

Women's Soccer

Athens 2004

August 24, 2004|By Philip Hersh | Philip Hersh,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

HERAKLION, Greece - Heather O'Reilly had posters of Mia Hamm on her New Jersey bedroom wall for years and years and years and years. One of those years was 1999, when the 14-year-old O'Reilly went to the World Cup opener at Giants Stadium and screamed her head off for Hamm.

So O'Reilly didn't have to wait for U.S. Olympic soccer coach April Heinrichs to talk to her team for the first time about the elephant in the room. O'Reilly already had realized what this Olympic tournament meant for Hamm and the four other "91ers" - the women who had won the original Women's World Cup in China.

"It was time to name the beast," Heinrichs said of her pre-game talk yesterday in Crete, where the United States beat Germany, 2-1, in overtime to qualify for a third straight Olympic final. This one will be Thursday against Brazil, which beat Sweden, 1-0, in its semifinal at Thessaloniki.

"She doesn't even have to say it," O'Reilly said. "It's on our minds all the time."

It, the beast, is trying to win another gold medal for Hamm, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett, Brandi Chastain and Kristine Lilly. It was not something Heinrichs wanted to turn into a burden, so, while the players often were asked about it, the coach did not bring it up with them until now.

"We ought to make a tribute to these players while they are still playing," Heinrichs said. "The fitting way is to have them go out of their last world-class event with a gold medal around their necks."

They got the chance with O'Reilly's goal on a pass from Hamm nine minutes into overtime. It erased O'Reilly's frustration for having missed an open net five minutes earlier - and the team's frustration for having let Germany tie the match in the third minute of injury time.

"Heather's love for the game and the team inspires us old bags a lot," Hamm, 32, said.

Hamm, Foudy and Fawcett have announced their intention to retire after this tournament. The end already may have come for Foudy, the captain, who had to leave yesterday's game in the 65th minute after injuring her right foot on a hard tackle by Germany's Isabell Bachor.

Foudy did not know the exact nature of the injury but remained optimistic about being able to play in the final.

"But I'm not going to do anything that hurts the team," Foudy said. "My voice projects, so even if I can't go, they will still think I'm on the field."

While Foudy was on the field, the United States dominated the rematch of last year's World Cup semifinal, which Germany had won, 3-0.

Passes from Chastain and Abby Wambach set up Lilly to score the first goal on a shot that deflected off the hands of diving German goalie Silke Rottenberg in the 33rd minutes.

The U.S. defense was stifling, with two or three players descending on any German who got the ball in a dangerous position. Germany did not get a scoring chance until the one that tied the match, a shot by Bachor that changed direction when it deflected off Fawcett's hip.

"I couldn't believe that," said U.S. goalie Briana Scurry, left helpless by the deflection. "Who gets a goal on a toe poke off a hip in the 93rd minute? It worked out in the end, anyway."

Hamm fed O'Reilly for the game-winner by remembering what she had seen Sunday while watching video of last year's loss to Germany. The tape showed a German defense that remained in position to cover all options if it were obvious the ball-handler was going to pass.

"You're trying to tear it apart by getting one to step out so there will be a hole in the zone," Hamm said. "If you penetrate along the end line, things will happen. If not, you can keep going toward the goal."

Hamm started penetrating after getting a pass from Wambach. O'Reilly was running toward the goal, but Hamm kept the ball until a German player moved to cut her off. Then Hamm flicked the ball into the middle, where an open O'Reilly merely had to deflect it with her right foot for a goal.

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