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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | SOCCER

Unlikely Heroine for Americans

Soccer: MacMillan comes off bench and provides game-winner in 2-1 overtime victory over Norway.

July 29, 1996|MIKE HISERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATHENS, Ga. — Coach Tony DiCicco claimed it was "a brilliant coaching move," but he laughed when he said it just so everyone knew for sure he was joking.

DiCicco was referring to the substitution he made about six minutes into overtime of the U.S. women's soccer team's Olympic semifinal against Norway on Sunday.

Starter Tiffeny Milbrett was replaced by Shannon MacMillan. It was a tactic not based on genius, but one that worked.

MacMillan, touching the ball for only the second time, gathered in a perfect lead pass from Julie Foudy and beat goalkeeper Bente Nordby with a shot just inside the left corner of the goal as the Americans escaped with a 2-1 victory before a Sanford Stadium crowd of 64,196, the biggest ever to watch an all-women's sporting event in the U.S.

The victory avenged a loss to Norway in a semifinal of the World Championships last year. In the gold-medal match here Thursday, the United States will play China, which defeated Brazil, 3-2.

With her winning goal, MacMillan became the unlikeliest of heroines. Had it not been for a players' strike last December, she would not have made the team.

MacMillan, the college player of the year from the University of Portland, was cut by DiCicco last fall when he chose 25 players to stay in a residence camp. She was called back only after nearly a dozen players went on strike, demanding that their bonus structure be improved.

Needing players to fill out a roster for the Brazil Cup, DiCicco turned back to MacMillan, who made the most of her second chance.

By playing well, she earned a place on the team even after the striking players returned. And when the roster was trimmed to 16 players for the Olympics, she was among them.

"[The strike] was a blessing in disguise for me," MacMillan said.

On the game-winning play, Foudy dribbled past Norway's Gro Espeseth and slipped a textbook lead pass to MacMillan, who was breaking toward the goal half a step ahead of defender Nina Nymark Andersen.

"She spaced the ball through at a perfect pace," MacMillan said of Foudy. "All I had to do was strike it."

That she did. But after that MacMillan's recollection gets fuzzy.

Something about 64,000 screaming fans and being on the bottom of a pile of teammates.

"I just remember turning around and running into the arms of all my teammates," she said. "It was unbelievable."

At different stages, an American victory seemed both unlikely and inevitable.

The U.S. set its own tempo from the outset. The Americans attempted 28 shots. Norway had eight--only two after the first half.

Hege Riise, the first woman to receive a vote in balloting for FIFA's world footballer of the year, never was able to break free long enough to so much as try a shot on goal.

Tiffany Roberts did the honors there, shadowing the Norwegian star the length of the field.

"She did a great job on arguably the best player in the world," said U.S. forward Mia Hamm, who belongs in similar company. "The effort she gave was tremendous."

And yet, with all that, Norway scored first and the U.S. needed a break to tie.

Linda Medalen put the Norwegians up, 1-0, in the 18th minute after taking a pass from Agnete Carlsen and slipping the ball just to the right and underneath the hand of goalkeeper Briana Scurry.

The score stayed that way until a controversial hand call on Espeseth gave the United States a penalty kick in the 76th minute.

Michelle Akers converted, blasting the ball in the opposite direction as the goalie leaped to her left.

Television replays did not show Espeseth touching the ball, but referee Sonia Denoncourt may have been making up for a call she missed on Espeseth that prevented a good U.S. opportunity a few minutes earlier.

"Sometimes you get away with that once," Milbrett said. "But do it again and the referee is looking closer."

Even Pellerud, Norway's coach, said he wouldn't comment about the penalty because he hadn't seen see it.

"Today we have nothing to complain about," he added. "We lost to a better team."

Norway played typically physically, particularly against Hamm, who was nursing a sprained left ankle and was listed as questionable.

She was consistently pounded to the turf whenever she penetrated to within striking distance, once drawing a red card on Norway's Carlsen.

"We knew what to expect and we got what we expected," Hamm said. "Norway is a great team. Today we just had something extra."

That something, no doubt, was MacMillan, who didn't start because DiCicco said he chose to go with a better defensive unit.

Several times, MacMillan was told to limber up, but then a few minutes later instructed to sit back down.

"I was bouncing up and in his face to let him know I was ready all the time," MacMillan said.

How ready even she didn't know.

"I can't even say this is like a dream because this is way past any kind of dream I would have had," she said.

"Every time I go out there, I just remind myself of where I came from and it makes me play just that much harder."

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