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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Tying China, 0-0, Leaves U.S. Women in a Bind

Soccer: Result means Americans finish second in their group and must play world champion Norway in the semifinals.

July 26, 1996|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — Women's soccer has had two World Championships. It has thriving professional leagues in a handful of countries. But it has taken its inclusion in the Olympic program for the first time to validate the sport for the American public.

The U.S. team, playing in the first Olympic women's soccer tournament, had accomplished even before Thursday's game what the men's team has failed to do in 11 Olympic attempts--get out of the first round. By tying China, 0-0, at the Orange Bowl, the United States earned a match against world champion Norway in the semifinals Sunday in Athens, Ga. China, which finished with the same 2-0-1 record as the United States in Group E, will play Brazil.

Thursday night's crowd of 43,525 is the largest to see the American women play in the United States. It far outstrips the previous record of 25,303 set Tuesday when they defeated Sweden in Orlando, Fla.

The large and exuberant crowds tell the U.S. team that, even though it has arrived internationally, it is finally being discovered at home.

"When you are in the Olympics, you know that the world cares about your sport," said U.S. defender Brandi Chastain. "That means a lot to athletes."

Never mind that the American women won the first World Championships in China in 1991, or that their international record is unrivaled, it's the Olympic exposure that is drawing domestic fans to their games. Before the two Olympic-sized crowds in this tournament, the largest crowd to see the team play in the United States was 8,795, earlier this year.

"To be known in the United States, you have to be involved in the Olympics," defender Carla Overbeck said. "It's televised. That's where Americans get their ideas."

Said U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco: "We understand what the Olympics mean. It exposes the women's game to those who are already soccer fans and, especially, to those who are not."

Usually, success is enough to stimulate American sports fans, but the U.S. women's team has had that and still appears as only a blip on the sports scene. Even the sport's biggest star--top scorer Mia Hamm, who has a poster, a commercial and the requisite star stuff--is not as well known as her male counterparts.

Without Hamm, sidelined by a sprained left ankle, the United States managed 19 shots on goal but failed to finish because of China's quick-closing defense and its own rushed shots. Kristine Lilly was the most effective offensive player, and her 20-yard shot in the second minute was the team's best chance for a goal.

Had the American team won, it would have faced a lesser opponent, Brazil, which has been a surprise team here. But the U.S. players claim to be relishing a rematch against Norway.

"We want to play them again," said American goalkeeper Briana Scurry. "We want to show them we are the better team."

The rivalry between the countries is long and bitter. The United States beat Norway to win the first World Championship in China, then was beaten by Norway in the semifinals of the 1995 World Championship in Sweden. The United States defeated China for third place.

"They have a World Cup title, we have a World Cup title," DiCicco said. "It would have been justice for us to meet Norway in the gold-medal game. We'll just have to get the job done in the semifinal."

Hamm is expected to play in Sunday's game.

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