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U.S. Women Survive Nigeria

Soccer: Americans reach semifinals with 3-1 victory over swift, hard-charging African challengers.


MELBOURNE, Australia — Raw speed.

That's what Nigeria threw at the U.S. women's soccer team Wednesday. That and a propensity for crunching tackles that frequently left American players sprawled on the ground, clutching knees, shins and ankles in pain.

It didn't make any difference, though. The defending gold medalist U.S. team continued its inexorable march to the championship game by defeating Nigeria, 3-1, to earn a place in the Olympic tournament semifinals.

Next up is Brazil, Sunday at Canberra.

The other semifinal will be an all-European affair pitting Germany against Norway, which beat China, 2-1, on Wednesday.

The current and former world champions [the U.S. and Norway] survived the "group of death" while the Asian and African challengers failed, but the Nigerians made the Americans earn their passage through to the final four.

"The way that they play and the style that they play can be unsettling to anybody," U.S. Coach April Heinrichs said. "From where we're sitting [on the bench], it seems like there's time and space, that we could possess the ball better.

"But none of us [on the bench] are under the pressure of having our legs ripped off at any minute. That sort of pressure is real, and it's unnerving to play against that."

Goals by Brandi Chastain in the 26th minute, Kristine Lilly in the 35th and Shannon MacMillan in the 56th were enough to offset a 48th-minute goal by Nigeria's Mercy Akide.

But it was the physical nature of the game that was the focus of postgame conversation.

"I think the thing that we have to be careful of in the women's game is that we don't follow the path of the men's game, with negative soccer and vicious tackles and tackles from behind," said Heinrichs.

The Nigerian players were not "dirty," but they were enthusiastic. Defender Joy Fawcett attested to that.

"They're just fearless," she said. "You know they're coming and they're running full bore at you and they're just going to go through you.

"They don't mean you harm; they're always sorry."

Forward Tiffeny Milbrett was the most seriously shaken of the U.S. players after a hard collision with Nigerian goalkeeper Anna Chiejine as both were going for a loose ball in the air.

Chiejine's cleat caught Milbrett on the right arm and she crumpled to the ground in pain, turning pale, according to teammate Nikki Serlenga.

"It's not broken or anything, I think," said Milbrett, her wrist taped and packed in ice. "It's just a massive impact bruise.

"The toll of these three games has been incredible. You can always say you're preparing yourself for Olympic matches, but there's no way you can prepare completely for them because they're so intense."

Heinrichs was worried the moment she saw Milbrett flattened. What was going through her mind?

"Concern," she said. "She's hot. When you have a hot player, you want to make sure they stay hot. And concern for her well-being."

In front of an estimated 9,000 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground--a crowd that grew to more than 24,000 for the Spain-Morocco men's game that followed--Chastain gave the U.S. an early lead.

Julie Foudy headed a Mia Hamm corner kick into her path and Chastain cracked it into the net from close range. Lilly, who earlier had hit the crossbar, made the score 2-0 with an angled shot, but it was MacMillan's goal, from a free kick after the foul on Milbrett, that was the best.

The defensive wall set up by Nigeria served only to screen its goalkeeper because MacMillan's rocket from 19 yards flew straight over the wall and into the net without Chiejine reacting.

"It hit the net before she even moved," MacMillan said.

That made the score 3-1 after 56 minutes, and for all intents and purposes the game was over.

After six games, the U.S. men's and women's teams remain undefeated at the Sydney Olympics, with a combined 3-0-3 record and having clinched places in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively.

Despite the men's unexpected run, NBC is considering not broadcasting their quarterfinal game against Japan in Adelaide on Saturday.




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PDT Thursday

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