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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | Today's Closeup : Soccer

U.S. Women's Soccer Goal There for Taking

August 01, 1996|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATHENS, Ga. — Memo to NBC: In case you missed it--and, certainly, millions of American TV viewers have--a nifty little Olympic soccer tournament comes to a close here tonight at Sanford Stadium.

Memo II to NBC: Almost forgot--the Americans will play for the gold medal.

Memo III: American women!

While NBC's cameras have been following every hop, skip and Yurchenko performed on the women's gymnastics podium--they even devoted prime time to Dominique Moceanu and Kerri Strug dancing to "YMCA"--the U.S. women's soccer team has labored beneath the radar, despite a roster full of engaging personalities, a 3-0-1 record, a scintillating semifinal overtime victory over Norway and a real chance to win the first U.S. gold medal in Olympic soccer.

Oh, a few highlights have been deemed worthy of TV transmission. Shannon MacMillan's game-winner against Norway, for instance, made the cut. But through the semifinals, aside from a corner kick here and a strike inside the post there, most of America's exposure to this tournament has been virtually nonexistent.

But Tuesday, soccer received an unexpected assist from softball, as NBC grabbed hold of the bumper of the U.S. softball bandwagon just as it idled toward the victory stand.

It was a good show--lots of flags, lots of fresh, happy all-American female faces--and it happened just in time to persuade the network to lift the soccer blackout tonight for at least 21 minutes.

According to Jim Froslid, press officer for U.S. Soccer, NBC is planning to "cut into" the U.S.-China soccer final "three times, from seven to 10 minutes each time. So, we could get as many as 30 minutes."

And maybe even the last 10, should the Americans appear to be nearing "The Star-Spangled Banner" time.

It isn't much, but soccer in this country has scrounged and gladly settled for less.

So, for those of you about to join this tournament in progress, a quick update:

This is the first time women's soccer has appeared as a medal sport in the Olympics, and the United States, as expected, reached the final without defeat.

The Americans, winners of the first women's World Cup tournament in 1991, are a global power, rivaled only by 1995 World Cup champion Norway. A U.S.-Norway final was highly anticipated here, but China disrupted those plans.

China finished ahead of the United States in group play by tying the Americans in their game, 0-0, and in the standings, 2-0-1, while bettering them in goal differential--plus-6 to plus-4.

That consigned the United States to second place--and a semifinal encounter with Norway, winner of the other four-team group.

Norway beat the Americans in the 1995 World Cup semifinals, 1-0, and led by the same score deep into the second half. Then, in the 76th minute, Norway's Gro Espeseth was whistled for a controversial hand ball inside the penalty area. Michelle Akers converted the penalty kick to tie the score and eventually send the game into overtime. MacMillan, brought on as a substitute in the 96th minute, scored the winner four minutes later.

In the other bracket, China defeated Brazil, 3-2, on two second-half goals by forward Wei Haiying, setting up tonight's rematch in the final.

Round 1 ended in a scoreless draw, but that one was played without forward Mia Hamm, the best U.S. player, who was out because of a sprained ankle.

Hamm led the U.S. in assists this year with 17 and is second in goals with nine. She returned for the semifinal, playing all 105 minutes, mostly in the midfield because of her limited speed. Having rested for three days, Hamm is expected to return to right forward in Coach Tony DiCicco's 3-5-2 alignment.

Defender Brandi Chastain strained her right knee in the semifinal but has no plans of missing a chance to start in the first Olympic gold-medal game for women's soccer.

"Everybody is so pumped up and excited, I don't think we're going to let anything get past us," Chastain said.

It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And, NBC willing, America will be able to sit in on half an hour of it.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

WOMEN'S SOCCER / Hamming It Up

Mia Hamm hobbled off the training field Wednesday, an ice pack strapped to her throbbing left ankle. She didn't look close to being ready for tonight's Olympic soccer final against China. Yet the United States' star striker is confident she will make it to the biggest day in her team's history.

The Making of a Soccer Power

1991: World Cup champion. Beat Norway in final, 2-1.

1995: World Cup, third place. Lost to Norway, 1-0, in semifinal. Beat China, 2-0, for third place.

* Has lost only once since that World Cup defeat to Norway (June 15, 1995).

* U.S. has lost only four games in three years.

* Head coach Tony DiCicco is 40-3-4 with U.S. team.

* Akers is leading all-time scorer women's soccer with 92 goals in 108 international games, including these Olympics.

Probable Starting Lineups

UNITED STATES (Formation: 3-5-2)

Position: GK

Number: 1

Player: Briana Scurry

*

Position: D

Number: 14

Player: Joy Fawcett

*

Position: D

Number: 4

Player: Carla Overbeck

*

Position: D

Number: 6

Player: Brandi Chastain

*

Position: MF

Number: 11

Player: Julie Foudy

*

Position: MF

Number: 13

Player: Kristine Lily

*

Position: MF

Number: 8

Player: Shannon MacMillan

*

Position: MF

Number: 15

Player: Tisha Venturini

*

Position: MF

Number: 10

Player: Michelle Akers

*

Position: F

Number: 9

Player: Mia Hamm

*

Position: F

Number: 16

Player: Tiffeny Milbrett

*

CHINA (Formation 4-4-2)

Position: GK

Number: 1

Player: Zhong Honglian

*

Position: D

Number: 2

Player: Wang Liping

*

Position: D

Number: 3

Player: Fan Yunjie

*

Position: D

Number: 5

Player: Xle Huilin

*

Position: D

Number: 12

Player: Wen Lirong

*

Position: MF

Number: 6

Player: Zhao Lihong

*

Position: MF

Number: 9

Player: Sun Wen

*

Position: MF

Number: 10

Player: Liu Ailing

*

Position: MF

Number: 11

Player: Sun Qingmei

*

Position: F

Number: 7

Player: Wei Haiying

*

Position: F

Number: 8

Player: Shi Qingmei

Sources: Times staff

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