The USA got first-half goals from Brandi Chastain and Kristine Lilly, along with a thunderbolt free-kick from Shannon MacMillan in the second half, which combined with China's 2-1 upset loss to Norway, gave the Americans the Group F title and a trip to Canberra to face Brazil in the Olympic semifinals on Sept. 24.
"If you look at the eight teams in the Olympics, probably four of the top six teams in the world were in our bracket," said U.S. head coach April Heinrichs. "So at the end of the day, when you see that we have seven points and that we are advancing and going to Canberra, we are as happy as can be."
The USA finished group play with seven points from two wins and a tie with China, whose loss to Norway might be considered a shocker had the Scandinavians not defeated the Asian champions twice this year prior to the Olympics. While China needed just a draw to advance, a U.S. victory over Nigeria meant that any loser in the Norway-China match would be going home. Substitute Margunn Haugenes' goal in the 78th minute, after China's Sun Wen had tied the game on a penalty kick in the 75th, sent the 1996 Olympics and 1999 Women's World Cup runners-up out of the tournament. Norway's dramatic victory avenged a 5-0 loss to China in the semifinals of the 1999 Women's World Cup.
"Yes, we would have loved to have another shot at China," said U.S. co-captain Julie Foudy. "But we've got Brazil next, which is a very talented team, so we're only focused on the semifinal."
The Americans knew a win would guarantee advancement no matter what the China-Norway result, but Nigeria certainly did not make it easy. Showing tremendous athleticism, some world-class skill on the ball and its usual fearlessness into tackles, Nigeria took the game to the USA at several points in the match, and actually out-shot the Americans 18-10 for the game. However, many of those shots were from distance, and the U.S. back line caught the Nigerians offside 12 times.
"Nigeria is a great team," added Foudy. "They are aggressive tacklers and they have great team speed. But we were able to finish off three great goals, get ahead early, stay ahead and get out of our group. They are so athletic, like their men's team, but can get a bit disorganized at times and we capitalized on that."
The last time these teams met was in the 1999 Women's World Cup with the USA registering a 7-1 win, pounding in seven unanswered goals after Nigeria has scored two minutes into the game. Tonight, Nigeria once again had the chance to take an early lead after just two minutes as Ifeanyi Chiejene sent a sharp header wide left of the net.
The Americans answered back in the 4th minute as Mia Hamm ran down a ball on the left flank and spun a cross into the middle that Lilly volleyed off the crossbar. Outside of Lilly's near miss and a Hamm free-kick in the 13th minute that was knocked down and smothered by Nigeria goalkeeper Anne Chiejine, the Super Falcons dictated the flow of the match for the first 25 minutes.
Then, as in the USA's previous match against China, a Tiffeny Milbrett shot led to a corner kick on which the U.S. scored its opening goal. In the 26th minute, Hamm spun her cross from the left side to the far post where Julie Foudy headed the ball back into the middle for the cutting Chastain to volley first-time into the roof of the net from four yards out.
In the 33rd minute Nigeria came inches from an equalizer as Florence Omagbemi met a corner kick and sent a looping header sailing toward the upper left corner of the U.S. goal. American goalkeeper Siri Mullinix showed some quick feet to scoot over and palm the ball down. Nigeria got the first touch on the rebound, but couldn't direct it toward goal and the U.S. defense cleared the ball away.
Once again the Americans answered the challenge as Lilly made it 2-0 in the 35th minute. She gathered in a ball on the left of the penalty box, slickly stepped around Omagbemi and drilled her shot across the goalmouth. The ball deflected off the toe of a Nigerian defender and slipped into the lower right corner past the stumbling Chiejine.
Nigeria pulled a goal back just three minutes into the second half on a remarkable solo effort from Mercy Akide. After receiving a pass from Rita Nwadike inside the U.S. penalty box, the 5-foot-11 Akide fought off the challenge of Joy Fawcett, then won a tackle with Kate Sobrero before slamming the ball over the left shoulder of Mullinix from 10 yards out.
The U.S. gave Nigeria very little time to search for an equalizer as MacMillan scored the final goal in the 56th minute. The goal came off a free-kick from the edge of the penalty box after Chiejine had plastered Milbrett with a nasty kick as the U.S. forward raced in on a breakaway. Milbrett had touched the ball past Chiejine, only to get the bottom of the reckless Chiejine's cleat square on her right wrist, causing several gruesome cuts and contusions on her arm, as well as earning the Nigerian goalkeeper a yellow card. Milbrett lay on the ground for several minutes before rising, and then MacMillan made the Falcons pay for the mistreatment of her college teammate, smashing her 18-yard shot over the wall and into the net over Chiejine's right shoulder before the goalkeeper could even react.
From then on, it was just a matter of surviving the game, as Nigeria whacked away at the USA's ankles and calves, some of which went unpunished by the referee.
"April told us before the game that they would just go through us to get the ball, and that we couldn't take it personally, it was just their style," said Chastain. "While that doesn't make it any easier to control the anger on those fouls, I think it did make us a little more cautious and fidgety. Perhaps we had more time than we thought, but played a little rushed at times and we paid for it by giving the ball away and knocking it out of bounds a few times. But we settled down when it was necessary and got three goals."
The USA has played Brazil three times this year, earning one tie and two wins, including a 4-0 victory in the on Sept. 1 in the last match before beginning Olympic competition. Brazil and the USA met in the semifinals of the 1999 Women's World Cup at Stanford Stadium in Stanford, Calif., a 2-0 U.S. victory. Each of the USA's six goals in the 2000 Olympics have been scored by different players.
"Everyone was coming here expecting these to be the hardest three games of our lives and they have been," said Milbrett. "Sometimes it hasn't been pretty, sometimes it has been downright ugly, sometimes we have been dominated and sometimes we have dominated. That's the just the way everyone thought it was going to be."
The USA will travel to Canberra tomorrow and train in the afternoon. Should the USA's win its semifinal against Brazil on Sept. 24 at Bruce Stadium (Kickoff 5:30 p.m. local), the team would arrive in Sydney on Sept. 25 to prepare for the gold medal game on Sept. 28.
2000 U.S. WOMEN'S OLYMPIC TEAM GAME REPORT
|Participants:||U.S. Women's Olympic Team vs. Nigeria|
|Competition:||2000 Olympic Games - Opening Round, Group F|
|Venue:||Melbourne Cricket Ground (Melbourne, Australia)|
|Date:||September 20, 2000 - Kickoff 5:30 p.m. (local)|
|Weather:||66 degrees - Warm, Breezy|
USA - Brandi Chastain, (Julie Foudy), 26,
USA - Kristine Lilly (unassisted), 35,
NGA - Mercy Akide, (Rita Nwadike), 48,
USA - Shannon MacMillan (unassisted), 56.
USA - 18-Siri Mullinix, 3-Christie Pearce, 14-Joy Fawcett, 15-Kate Sobrero, 6-Brandi Chastain, 13-Kristine Lilly (5-Nikki Serlenga, 46th), 11-Julie Foudy, 2-Lorrie Fair, 8-Shannon MacMillan, 16-Tiffeny Milbrett, 9-Mia Hamm (Cindy Parlow, 70th).
NGA - 1-Anna Chiejine (18-Judith Chime), 2-Yinka Kudaisi, 4-Perpetua Nkwocha, 5-Eberechi Opara, 6-Kikelomo Ajayi (12-Patience Avre, 20th), 7-Stella Mbachu, 8-Rita Nwadike, 10-Mercy Akide, 11-Ifeanyichukwu Chiejene, 13-Nkiru Okosieme, 14-Florence Omagbemi (15-Maureen Mmadu, 72nd).
|Nikki Serlenga (caution)||49,|
|Anna Chiejine (caution)||54,|
|Mercy Akide (caution)||55,|
|Patience Avre (caution)||90.|