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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

U.S. Shoots Through to Semifinals

Soccer: Americans rally twice in regulation, then beat Japan, 5-4, on penalty kicks, with Victorine scoring the decisive goal.

September 24, 2000|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ADELAIDE, Australia — Adjectives alone will not suffice when it comes to describing the United States' exceptional victory over Japan Saturday night in the quarterfinals of the men's Olympic soccer tournament.

This was a game that had everything, a game that lasted not 90 minutes but two full hours, a game that featured four goals and countless near-misses, a game the U.S. players and coaches will never forget.

Twice the Americans were behind, and twice they fought back to tie it.

After 120 dramatic and draining minutes, it was still tied, 2-2, and penalty kicks were all that was left to separate two bone-weary teams that had given their all.

And when Sasha Victorine hammered the ball off the fingertips of Japan's blood-spattered goalkeeper, Seigo Narazaki, and into the right corner of the net, bedlam ensued.

Every U.S. player and coach rushed onto the Hindmarsh Stadium field in a delirious, arm-waving, shouting celebration that threatened to drown out even the noise from the crowd of 18,345.

The improbable had happened. By making all five of its penalty kicks to only four for Japan--Hidetoshi Nakata was the luckless player whose shot struck the left post--the U.S. advanced to the Olympic semifinals for the first time.

It will play Spain on Tuesday night in Sydney with a chance to secure its first medal in men's soccer.

"I've been involved in a lot of games over the years," U.S. Coach Clive Charles said. "World Cup games, World Cup qualifying games. This may have been the most exciting game that I've ever been involved in.

"Japan were a tremendous team. They gave us all kinds of problems throughout the game. It was a very entertaining game. Both teams were committed to attack.

"And it had everything. It had quality soccer. It had incidents at both ends. The game was hard but fair. I'm just proud to have been a part of it. These guys here [the U.S. players] were phenomenal. The team never gave up. We came from behind twice.

"I'm exhausted. I have no idea how these guys must feel. It was a tremendous performance from the U.S. team today."

Officially, the result goes into the record book as a tie, with the U.S. advancing on penalty kicks, but in reality it was a victory of guts and determination over a technically more skilled team.

Japan's squad of 18 is basically its World Cup 2002 team in the making, and French Coach Philippe Troussier has it playing attractive, high-speed soccer with all sorts of imaginative twists.

But what the Japanese had in skill, the U.S. had in heart, and in the end it was heart that won out.

"It was incredible," defender Frankie Hejduk said. "The emotions that we had after the game, I don't even know what I did. I could have done 10 back flips in a row, I have no clue."

"It's definitely a surreal moment," said Peter Vagenas, Victorine's Galaxy teammate from Pasadena, whose 90th-minute penalty kick sent the game into 30 minutes of sudden-death overtime.

"I don't think it's really sunk in yet. Maybe tomorrow when we're going to Sydney to play in the semifinals it will actually sink in.

"But as Clive said, the match could have gone either way. When it goes down to penalty kicks, everything goes out the window."

The game was barely half an hour old when Japan took the lead. The Japanese players had been causing the U.S. all sorts of problems with their combination play, but it was a more straightforward play that led to the goal.

Shunsuke Nakamura crossed the ball in from the left to the far post, where Atsushi Yanagisawa headed the ball down sharply and watched it bounce up and over diving goalkeeper Brad Friedel and into the net.

It was not until the 68th minute that the U.S. was able to pull even.

Josh Wolff started the move and finished it, with Jeff Agoos and Conor Casey also involved. The ball was cleared once, but Wolff slammed a low shot into the left corner.

The goal shocked but did not unsettle Japan, which came right back and retook the lead in the 72nd minute after an exchange of passes involving four players.

Friedel made a superb save on Naohiro Takahara's first effort from close range but was powerless to do anything about the rebound shot, which Takahara blasted into the roof of the net.

Shortly thereafter, Narazaki was cut on the face in a violent collision with his own defender, Yuji Nakazawa, but continued to play even though he was shaken and bleeding.

The U.S. attacks became more desperate as the minutes drained away, but it wasn't until the final seconds that the tying goal came.

Wolff, the Chicago Fire forward from Stone Mountain, Ga., sprinted into the penalty area past defender Tomoyuki Sakai. There appeared to be minor contact, Wolff went flying and referee Felix Tangawarima of Zimbabwe pointed to the penalty spot.

Vagenas, who had scored on a penalty kick in the 1-1 tie against Cameroon in the first round, made no mistake this time either, and with his goal the U.S. stayed on track for an unlikely medal.

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