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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | RANDY HARVEY

U.S. Ill From Sun Stroke

Although still dangerous, Hamm and aging U.S. team appear to have lost a step since World Cup triumph.

September 18, 2000|RANDY HARVEY

MELBOURNE, Australia — As the latest game in a remarkable series of international matches between the women's soccer teams from the United States and China neared its conclusion Sunday at the famed Melbourne Cricket Ground, Brandi Chastain stood in front of the bench wearing a red stocking cap and a red Windbreaker, reminding everyone that winter has not completely lost its grip on the Southern Hemisphere.

The scene was in stark contrast to the Women's World Cup final between the teams in 1999, when Chastain ripped off her jersey on a sweaty July afternoon at the Rose Bowl after scoring the decisive penalty kick.

The weather is not all that has changed in the 14 months since. The Americans were a bit better than China last year, and although they needed penalty kicks to win, the result was just. This year, although the teams tied, 1-1, in the first round of the Summer Olympics on Sunday, it is China that is a bit better.

The Chinese certainly seemed to believe so, celebrating afterward as if they had won a great victory, and perhaps they had because now you have to believe their confidence will be soaring in the likelihood that they will meet the United States again in the final next week in Sydney.

This is not the same U.S. team that won last year's World Cup. That might have been expected considering that April Heinrichs replaced Tony DiCicco as coach. But she has made only two changes in the starting lineup. Two others, more significant ones, were forced on her.

This is not about April.

This is about December.

This team, the nucleus of which was together for much of the '90s, is aging. Michelle Akers, the United States' most effective player in past matches with China, retired from international competition at 34. Carla Overbeck, 32, is battling Graves' disease. Kristine Lilly, 29, appears to have lost a step. The 32-year-old Chastain, while trying to keep warm on the sideline Sunday, had ice packs strapped to both knees and has clearly lost a step.

Then there is Mia Hamm.

I don't know whether it's time to pose the question about whether she's still a dominant player, but it's certainly time to pose the question about whether it's time to pose the question.

*

The best player in the world today is China's Sun Wen. She scored two goals in the opening victory over Norway Thursday at Canberra and scored again Sunday on a beautiful rainbow of a free kick that U.S. goalkeeper Siri Mullinix couldn't have stopped if she had borrowed the Aborigines' stilts from the opening ceremony.

Sun has done all of that while double-teamed and, essentially, playing on one leg. Her injured left knee is heavily wrapped.

"The great players find a way to make their team win," Hamm said. "I didn't do that tonight."

It was not just that Hamm failed to score. That often happens because she, like Sun, invariably draws more than one defender. But when it does happen, she usually can be counted on to make brilliant passes to set up her teammates. She didn't even do that Sunday. She also let her frustration get the better of her, committing several fouls. Not all of them were called, but one that was led to Sun's equalizing free kick.

"I'll be upset tonight," Hamm said. "But I've got to get over it. I've got to focus now on Nigeria."

It would hardly be fair to Hamm to draw a conclusion from one game. Anyone who questions whether she's still one of the world's great forwards will look foolish if she scores a hat trick Wednesday in the final first-round game here against Nigeria.

Heinrichs reprimanded one reporter Sunday, accusing him of obsessing on Hamm's performance.

"It gets a little tiresome because people give Mia such a hard time," she said later. "When [media are] heavily critical, I want to protect her from that. People are looking for a story when there is no story there. She's a great player. We'll protect her."

But Heinrichs' actions have led to some of the speculation about Hamm's effectiveness. Hamm played well for 35 minutes against Norway, scoring a goal, but then faded. Heinrichs pulled her for the last 20 minutes.

Heinrichs also has been speaking more and more favorably about the other starting forward, Tiffeny Milbrett, and, indeed, the Norwegian coach was so intent on thwarting her in the Olympic opener that he didn't even notice when Hamm retired to the bench.

Although Milbrett is only seven months younger, Hamm is a weary and worn 28. All the years of taking abuse from desperate defenders have taken their toll. Perhaps we have seen the torch passed.

*

Even as their international careers near conclusion, there remains a sense of destiny about these U.S. players.

They are not as dominant as they were when they were at their best, in winning the gold medal four years ago in Atlanta, or even last year in the World Cup. But they, like a veteran boxer who knows how to cling and clinch and feint and fake while searching for an opening, are still capable of a knockout.

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