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U.S. Victorious, Knock on Wood

Women's soccer: Milbrett hits goalpost twice, crossbar once, but also scores in 2-0 victory over Norway.


MELBOURNE, Australia — Norwegian wood. That's what it must have been.

Nothing else can explain why Tiffeny Milbrett scored only one goal, not four, Thursday afternoon as the U.S. women's Olympic soccer team defeated Norway, 2-0, in front of 16,043 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground to begin its pursuit of a second gold medal to match the one it won in 1996.

First, Milbrett beat Norway's goalkeeper. Good start.

Next, Milbrett hit Norway's right post. Not so good.

Then, Milbrett hit Norway's crossbar. Unlucky.

Finally, Milbrett hit Norway's left post. Unbelievable.

"The keeper, Bente Nordby, she just kind of smiled at me when I hit the second post," Milbrett said.

Getting help from the woodwork was just about the only thing that went right for the 1995 world champions and 1996 Olympic bronze medalists on a chilly afternoon when the U.S. dominated all phases of the game.

"Our plan going in was that we were going to go after them and make them adjust to us," winger Shannon MacMillan said. "I think from the start we went after them. We jumped up by two goals and we kept coming at them.

"We have a lot of respect for Norway and we didn't want to back down because we knew that one goal and they're right back in it."

Milbrett gave the U.S. the lead in the 18th minute, sprinting through a line of four defenders, nodding the ball down to herself, seeing her initial shot blocked by Nordby and then tucking the rebound into the open net. Kristine Lilly provided the pass that led to the goal.

Six minutes later, Mia Hamm made the score 2-0 with her 126th international goal, extending her world record. As the ball flashed into the net, the spark seemed to go out among the Norwegians.

Afterward, two of Norway's most accomplished players, both 1995 world champions, struggled to find an explanation.

"I don't know what happened," said striker Marianne Pettersen, Norway's leading scorer with 60 goals in 87 games. "I think we got too defensive. We didn't get up there [on offense] to create any chances."

Defender Gro Espeseth said it was more a case of the Americans taking charge of the game and not letting go.

"They played very well, they were much better than us today," she said. "We got two goals right in our face and then we were very defensive and didn't try to be offensive. We played a very bad match today, but I think we'll play much better in the next game."

Siri Mullinix, the U.S. goalkeeper, showed a touch of early nerves but managed to overcome them and earned the shutout. She was helped immensely by the American back line, where centerbacks Joy Fawcett and Kate Sobrero were dominant in the air.

The U.S. also controlled the midfield, but it was Milbrett, 27, who garnered most of the postgame praise.

"Milly was just on fire, I thought she had a great game," said midfielder and co-captain Julie Foudy.

"She's a little dynamo," said MacMillan, who played alongside Milbrett at the University of Portland. "Her first step is quicker than anyone I know."

Milbrett's quick-trigger shooting takes teammates as well as opponents by surprise.

"You don't think she's going to shoot it and all of a sudden she's ripping a shot that's bouncing off the crossbar or curling in," MacMillan said. "It's just amazing for me to watch, especially because I played with her at Portland, to see how far she's come."

Milbrett, all 5 feet 2 and 130 pounds of her, was loose from the beginning. In the locker room, she spent the time before the game "just grooving a little bit" to the new Madonna single, "Music," which she described as "disco-funk."

Long gone were the nerves that she admitted to before the Women's World Cup began last summer.

"Anything [after that] is a piece of cake," she said. "That World Cup was the biggest pressure cooker that I've ever faced or encountered as a player."

All the U.S. players were ready, Milbrett said.

"We've been waiting for so long," she said. "We've been here for more than a week, and we came and watched the [Australia-Italy] men's game last night in front of 93,000, and that gets your heart going.

"It was just our turn to get out there on the field have some fun."

April Heinrichs, the U.S. coach, was effusive in her praise of Milbrett.

"Tiffeny had a phenomenal performance for 90 minutes for us," she said. "What she did so well was receive the ball under pressure, took chances, went after defenders, played in a seam in front of the [Norwegian] defenders and behind the midfielders and caused havoc.

"I don't ever know what Tiffeny is going to do with the ball. There's that creativity that coaches can't teach. She really broke through. I hope people appreciate what a wonderful little player she is. I know we do. People were screaming her name from the bench."

And the three shots that hit the woodwork?

"You can see, even though we played well, the margin between scoring goals [or not scoring] can be an inch or two," Heinrichs said.

China is the next U.S. opponent, on Sunday, and the Chinese will have noted how easily the Americans disposed of their fiercest rival.

Coming in, Norway had a 3-1-1 record against the U.S. this year and remains the only team with an all-time winning record against the Americans. But Thursday belonged to Milbrett and company.

"They scored two goals on their first two chances," said Norway's Coach, Per-Mathias Hogmo, "and after that our team looked very nervous. We were never able to play our game.

"We were lucky today we didn't lose by more."

They would have, but for that Norwegian wood.



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