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With Some Help and Some Heart, the USA Wins Group G

SHENYANG, China (Aug. 13, 2008) - A strange thing happened on the way to quarterfinals.

During the 90 minutes of the final two matches of Group G, one taking place in Shanghai (Japan vs. Norway) and the other in Shenyang (USA vs. New Zealand), the U.S. team took a small jump in the standings -- from second in the group to first – but a momentous jump in confidence.

It was six minutes during those games, taking place concurrently more than 650 miles apart, in which fortune did a flip-flop.

It went something like this …

Heading into the final round of group matches, Norway held first place in the group with six points and a commanding plus-three goal difference. The USA sat in second with three points and a minus-1 goal difference. The Americans knew they needed a big win over New Zealand combined with a Japanese win over Norway to not only tie the Scandinavians on points, but make up the large abyss in goal difference, which was the first tie-breaker in the group.

The U.S. coaches had done their homework and had scenarios planned out.

“Before the match, the coaching staff sat down and talked through the different scenarios and what adjustments would need to be made based on the situation in our game and the other game,” said U.S. assistant coach Erica Walsh. “We were getting text messages on the bench with updates from the Japan-Norway match, so we knew how the situation was unfolding.”

But with all the players aware of the simple fact that they needed to take care of their business, which meant scoring as early and as often as possible, no updates on the other game were given during the first half, even as Norway took a 1-0 lead in the 27th minute and Japan tied the match four minutes later.

When Heather O’Reilly set an Olympic record for fastest goal just 40 seconds into the match, there seemed to be some magic in the air. Amy Rodriguez made it 2-0 just before halftime and the USA headed into the locker room with a two-goal lead.

At that point, to the win the group, the USA needed Japan to get at least one more goal, and then get two of their own. Japan got that goal in the 51st minute and then amazingly, one minute later, they got another. Word reached the U.S. bench that Japan led 3-1 and the USA now needed just one more goal to pass Norway on goal difference and win the group, provided the score stayed the same in Shanghai.

On the U.S. bench, the discussions on possible adjustments began. But less than four minutes later, Lindsay Tarpley scored to make it 3-0.

Tarpley’s classy volley after a flurry in the New Zealand penalty box put the USA in first place for the first time in the tournament, although none of the players on the field knew it at the time.

“Our feeling was that if things were going our way and the goals we’re coming, we would just let the game play itself out,” said Walsh. “We didn’t want to put any unnecessary pressure on the team as the feeling was very good going into that last 30 minutes of the game.”

Angles Hucles scored just four minutes after Tarpley, putting the USA two goals clear of the Norwegians. Ten minutes after Hucles had made it 4-0, Japan scored again and the USA had a three goal cushion. At that point, there was definitely no need to shout any messages to the U.S. players.

Japan added its fifth goal seven minutes from the end of its game and amazingly, the USA’s goal difference superiority over Norway had risen to four goals.

“In the last 10 minutes, I kept looking over to the bench to see if there was an update from the other game, but the coaches’ body language was great,” said U.S. captain Christie Rampone. “They just looked cool and confident. I figured either Norway had won, or we had enough goals, so we just kept playing.”

After the final whistle, as the U.S. players came together to celebrate the big win at midfield, they were told of the Norway result and that they had in fact won the group. If you could pile a celebration on top of a celebration, that’s what happened inside the center circle in Shenyang.

“We couldn’t have diagramed it any better,” said Walsh “The early goal from O’Reilly, the great feeling, the reports from the other match. Everything played out exactly the way we needed it to. The smiles on their faces after the game told the whole story. It was the total opposite feeling from seven days before. We certainly got some help from Japan, but the players had a challenge, they met it and they earned their first-place finish.”