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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

For U.S., It's All Love and Happiness

Women's soccer: Spurred on by hometown crowd's affection, gold-medal favorites rout Denmark, 3-0.

July 22, 1996|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORLANDO, Fla. — After kicking around for years in obscurity, toiling for the love of game and other cliches, U.S. women soccer players discovered Sunday that America does love them, even if it's only in Olympic years.

Unsure of the rules but well versed in jingoism, a raucous 25,303 at the Florida Citrus Bowl inspired the United States to a 3-0 victory over Denmark in the opening round of group play.

The U.S squad, a dream team you haven't read much about, ran the Danes ragged in the 102-degree heat, displaying superb conditioning in the face of dehydration.

Emotionally, however, it was the Americans who were spent.

Although the U.S. is the gold-medal favorite in this first-time Olympic sport, it had never before played in front of a home crowd larger than 8,975.

"I will never forget that moment for the rest of my life, walking on that field today," star forward Mia Hamm said afterward.

The Americans were so nervous beforehand that Coach Tony DiCicco had to give his team a de-pep talk.

"They were so hyper," DiCicco said.

It took 36 minutes to calm down, which wasn't easy against a Denmark team so intent on protecting its goal that it benched star scorer Helle Jensen in the first half for a more sturdy defender.

The game's breakthrough, in the 37th minute, was like an emotional dam break, as midfielder Tisha Venturini took Brandi Chastain's throw-in on one bounce and whirled a shot at goalkeeper Dorthe Larsen. Larsen sprang to her left and deflected the ball with two hands, but the shot ricocheted off the right post and across the goal.

Scoring the first goal in international competition is so critical--the U.S. is 14-0 when it has done so--that Danish Coach Keld Gantzhorn all but conceded defeat at that point.

"Hope died in my players' brain," he said of the game's moment.

Gantzhorn's team had blown its best chance, in the 34th minute, when Gitte Krogh slipped through the American defense and saw nothing but grass between her and Briana Scurry, the U.S. goalkeeper.

Scurry, though, rushed toward Krogh at the top of the penalty box and smothered the ball before the Dane could shoot. Denmark, in fact, did not record an official shot on goal in the game.

Scurry's save and Venturini's goal, the first in U.S. Olympic history, seemed to unleash the Americans.

Four minutes after the first score, Hamm beat Larsen to the left corner with a crossing shot from right of goal.

In the 49th minute, forward Tiffeny Milbrett delivered the exclamation point when she chipped in a perfect centering pass from Hamm.

The victory was emphatic and impressive, given Denmark is the only team other than Norway to defeat the U.S. since 1994.

"I'm sure we have seen one of the very best teams in all the competition," Gantzhorn said of the American team. "I'm sure they will be in the final."

The U.S. team was further heartened by world champion Norway's 2-2 tie against Brazil Sunday. Norway and the U.S. are not in the same group of four teams, and would only meet in the medal round.

The Americans can only imagine what new thrills this home-country advantage and sudden celebrity can bring.

As the scoreboard clock ticked down, the crowd chanted "three, two, one" in unison, unaware that there is "extra time" in soccer to account for running time lost because of injuries and fouls.

But who were these women to lecture their fans about the finer points of the game?

"Incredible, awesome," said veteran Michelle Akers, of the standing ovation the team received exiting the stadium. "It is a pleasure being an American today."

Hamm, the team's star, can't remember which was more exciting, the beginning or the end.

"It gives you goosebumps," she said. "During warmups, I saw my family in the stands. My sister looked like she was a million miles away, but I thought I saw her crying. I almost got misty-eyed myself."

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