A monthly column about the State of U.S. Soccer that takes a hard look at everything from the performance of the U.S. National Teams to pro soccer in the good ‘ole U-S-of-A . If you’re looking for a viewpoint that you won’t see in a generic, nuts-and-bolts U.S. Soccer press release, you’ve come to the right place.
This is it—the last chance for the 91ers / the Fab Five / Mia and the Gang, whatever you want to call these living legends. After grabbing gold in ’96, the U.S. was dealt a blow to their dynasty in 2000, settling for silver. This time around they hope to get back to the top of the medal stand. Anything else will be a letdown. Sure, the U.S. would graciously accept bronze, but this isn’t like McDonald’s Happy Meals; you don’t want to collect all three prizes. To see how the U.S. performance in Athens is stacking up, we reminisce about our great runs in the first two Olympic Women’s Football Tournaments.
Coming off a failed title defense and a third place finish at Sweden 1995, the pressure (although not nearly as overwhelming as what players carried on their backs in the summer of ’99) was on the U.S. women. In the Golden Era of the 90s, failing to win two consecutive world championships was not an option. When the USA’s mantra of the decade is as audacious as “Win Forever,” the team is expected to do just that: win, win, win.
Besides the desire to maintain the standard of excellence that the team established with its win at the first ever Women’s World Cup in 1991, the players undoubtedly had added motivation to win the first ever Olympic tournament to add to their legacy. Fortunately, the U.S. Women would have the luxury of attempting this historic feat right in their backyard and entered the Atlanta Games as the tournament favorite. (In fact, the team opened tournament play in Orlando, Fla., just a few miles from where they had been in residency since February of that year.) Like the 1999 Women’s World Cup a few years later, they didn’t disappoint, edging their rival China to win the world championship.
USA 3, Denmark 0 – Citrus Bowl; Orlando, Fla. – July 21, 1996
Lumped in Group E with rival China, the U.S. had its work cut out for them in the early going in order to advance to the medal round. The U.S. cruised in its opener, downing Denmark 3-0 on July 21 at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla. Versatile midfielder Tisha Venturini scored the first of her two Olympic goals to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead in the 37th minute, with Hamm striking just four minutes later for a 2-0 halftime lead. Speed demon Tiffeny Milbrett would clinch the game in the 49th minute, scoring her first of two in the tourney.
USA 2, Sweden 1 – Citrus Bowl; Orlando, Fla. – July 23, 1996
Next up was Sweden, who was coming off a disappointing performance as host of the WWC just a year ago but was led by a core of veterans like legendary midfielder Pia Sundhage. The U.S. was up to the task, spurred on by another opening goal by Venturini (this time in the 59th minute) and a rocket from Shannon MacMillan three minutes later. Now sitting on a comfortable 2-0 lead, the U.S. turned right around and allowed the Swedes back into the game off an own goal. But the insertion of midfielder Tiffany Roberts for Milbrett in the 66th minute helped the U.S. control the match the rest of the way for the 2-1 win.
USA 0, China 0 – Orange Bowl; Miami, Fla. – July 25, 1996
Now the U.S. had to face a dangerous China team that had shut out Sweden 2-0 in their opener and rolled over Denmark 5-1. But with both teams sitting at 2-0 with six points atop the group, they were both assured of advancing to the semifinal medal round. With that in mind, and knowing that they would likely meet again in the final, this third opening match for each team was expectedly played in a very cautious fashion. U.S. head coach Tony DiCicco was without Mia Hamm due to a minor injury and he pulled Milbrett after the 30th minute to save his top two forwards for the crucial semifinal three days later. The two teams played to a scoreless draw, with neither showing its full hand, and China finished first in Group G based on superior goal differential (+6 to the USA’s +4).
Medal Round (Single Elimination)
USA 2, Norway 1 (ot) – Sanford Stadium; Athens, Ga. – July 28, 1996
Similar to what could be the case in Greece this year, the USA’s opponent in the semifinals was the reigning world champion. In this case, it was Norway, who presented the toughest of physical battles, due to their hard-nosed players and trademark long-ball style. For this knockout round, the tournament finally moved from outlying venues in Florida, Washington, D.C., and Birmingham, Ala., to the state of Georgia, with the semifinal doubleheader taking place just down the road (okay, 75 miles) from Atlanta in Athens. In the first match, the U.S. watched Chinese forward Wei Haiying equalize the match at 2- versus Brazil in the 83rd minute and then lift her team to the gold medal match with a strike in the 90th minute. The result would provide a dose of foreshadowing for the game that followed, as the U.S. uncharacteristically gave up an early goal in 18th minute and found themselves in the rare position of being down a goal, only to roar back and tie the game through a Michelle Akers penalty kick in the 76th minute and then win on a golden goal by Shannon MacMillan in the 100th minute that still stands as one of the most important in the history of the U.S. Women’s National Team program.
USA 2, China 1 – Sanford Stadium; Athens, Ga. – August 1, 1996
The table was set for a classic final worthy of the first ever Olympic gold medal match for Women’s Football: the U.S. facing China, for the first ever title of its kind, in front of the largest crowd to watch a women’s soccer match to date. With the crowd of more than 75,000 behind them, DiCicco decided to have the team come out swinging, using a 3-4-3 formation with the quick and talented trio of Hamm, Milbrett and MacMillan wreaking havoc up top. MacMillan scored in the 19th minute, only to have Chinese star Sun Wen strike back in the 32nd minute. The 1-1 draw lasted into the final third of the match, but Milbrett helped deliver the gold and claim her spot in women’s soccer history by converting on a breakaway in the 68th minute for the final 2-1 result. The Golden Girls had their second world championship in three attempts.
The U.S. came into the 2000 tournament riding high. They were the defending Women’s World Cup and Olympic champions, and under new head coach April Heinrichs they had picked up four trophies in the calendar year as part of their extensive preparations for Sydney. But as confident as they were heading into the tournament, they were also tired, having played an unprecedented 33 matches before stepping on the field in Melbourne. That exhaustive number of matches in the eight months prior to the Olympics was more than the U.S. had played in any 12-month span in its entire 15-year history. The U.S. was also competing in a world championship for the first time without a pair of legends in defender and captain Carla Overbeck and Michelle Akers, who to this day stands as arguably the best women’s soccer player of all time. But the U.S. performed admirably in Australia, advancing to the gold medal match before falling just short in overtime of the final.
USA 2, Norway 0 – Cricket Ground; Melbourne, Australia – Sept. 14, 2000
The USA’s performance in the first round in Australia was similar to that in the U.S. four years earlier, posting a 2-0-1 record in the Group of Death, with their only blemish a draw with an always tough China squad. The U.S. opened against old rival Norway, who had taken them down in the ’95 WWC. This time, the U.S. took it to them early and often, with Milbrett converting a rebound of a shot that was saved by Norway ‘keeper Bente Nordby in the 18th minute, Hamm scoring a second goal in the 24th and Milbrett hitting the woodwork twice before the half. The 2-0 score held up, as the U.S. back line of Kate Markgraf (nee Sobrero), Brandi Chastain, Joy Fawcett and Christie Rampone (nee Pearce) diffused the now predictable and less effective long-ball attack for the entire match.
USA 1, China 1 – Cricket Ground; Melbourne, Australia – Sept. 17, 2000
The U.S. was equally impressive in their second match against China, but as in ’96, could only muster a draw despite outplaying their counterpart through the majority of the match. Current captain Julie Foudy got the U.S. on the board in the 38th minute, heading home a corner kick at the far post, but Sun Wen brought China back by curling a free kick into the top corner of the goal in the 67th minute. The U.S. had a chance for the win, but superkeeper Gao Hong stretched to save Kristine Lilly’s penalty kick effort after a handball had been called in the Chinese box.
USA 3, Nigeria 1 – Cricket Ground; Melbourne, Australia – Sept. 20, 2000
Playing their third game without travel in Melbourne, the U.S. was already happy with four points from its first two matches, but needed a win over Nigeria to top Group F. The U.S. came out with guns a-blazin’, as Brandi Chastain knocked in a loose ball off a corner in the 26th minute and Kristine Lilly made it 2-0 in the 39th minute with a low blast that deflected off a Nigerian defender to fool goalie Anna Chiejine. Nigeria came out like the U.S. in the second half, pulling a goal back in a matter of three minutes from “Marvelous” Mercy Akide, but a thunderous free kick from MacMillan sealed their fate in the 56th minute.
Medal Round (Single Elimination)
USA 1, Brazil 0 – Bruce Stadium; Canberra, Australia – Sept. 24, 2000
By claiming the top spot in Group F, the U.S. avoided a tough semifinal match with a much-improved German team that had gone 3-0 in Group E and outscored its opponents 6-1. But still, the U.S. had to go through an always tricky Brazilian squad in a bit of deja vu from the Women’s World Cup less than a year earlier. Again, the U.S. would prevail, with the U.S. applying constant pressure and thwarting Brazil’s dangerous counterattacks. Mia Hamm was in the right place at the right time to score the lone goal in the 60th minute, finishing a loose ball after Milbrett had collided with Andreia. The U.S. continued to frustrate the Brazilians and pulled out a close result in a brutal physical battle that yielded seven yellow card cautions.
Norway 3, USA 2 (ot) – Football Stadium; Sydney, Australia – Sept. 28, 2000
With the win over Brazil, the U.S. was rewarded by finally having the chance to join the rest of the Olympic action in the Sydney home base. But their exhausted and bruised bodies only had a few days to recuperate before facing another physical test against the toughest team in Europe. The U.S. had solved their playing style in the opener, but that day Norway brought a fire that was missing from the first contest. It didn’t take long for little Tiff Milbrett to utilize her speed against the Scandinavian’s size, scoring in the fifth minute. The U.S. looked well on its way to victory until defender Gro Espeth headed home a corner kick just before halftime that evened the match. While the game was essentially reset with the beginning of the second half, Norway entered with clear momentum, and it grew even more so when Ragnhild Gulbrandsen scored on a second header goal in the 78th minute. With just over 10 minutes to play, the U.S. pushed feverishly for the equalizer, and got it with just 18 seconds left in regulation when Milbrett, the smallest player on the field, rose to score on a header in the 90th minute and make it 2-2. But in the first 15-minute overtime period, Norway regained the edge and took advantage of both a miscommunication between Fawcett and goalkeeper Siri Mullinix and a no-call on a handball, as Dagny Mellgren converted to give Norway the title and end what was easily one of the best women’s football matches of all time.
For a recap of how things have gone so far for the U.S. women, check out “Mark That Calendar” below.