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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | BILL PLASCHKE

Silver Lining

U.S. women's soccer team, which lost to Norway for the gold medal, showed its character during and after.

September 29, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

SYDNEY, Australia — Mia Hamm stepped abruptly from the medals podium and stalked down a row of ashen-faced, tear-streaked teammates.

"Heads up," she told them. "Keep your heads up."

Walking away after a decade as graceful winners, the U.S. women's soccer team paused Thursday to show us how to lose.

The final accounting was a dizzying 3-2 overtime fall to Norway in the Olympic gold-medal game.

The final scene was one of the devastation:

Tiffeny Milbrett frozen at midfield, refusing to move. Joy Fawcett crouched and weeping, refusing to be consoled.

Players on their knees, or in other players' arms, or staring hypnotically at a celebrating pile of red shirts as if it were a bonfire.

"It feels like hell, to tell you the truth," Julie Foudy said.

Yet the final lesson was something else entirely.

The players did as Hamm suggested and stood solemnly with their heads high as they listened to the Norwegian national anthem.

They followed the other teams around the Sydney Football Stadium field for a thank-you lap, waving to Norwegian fans and throwing their flowers to their children.

Then, just before leaving our view for the last time, they gathered in a tight circle.

"And together, very softly, we said, 'Team!' " Brandi Chastain said.

Allow us to say it louder. Allow us, in fact, to shout it enough to be heard by every other athlete fortunate enough wear our colors.

Team!

This group of women was one, all right, and there may never be another one like it.

For a decade, playing to the public as they played on the pitch, these women won championships and changed ideas.

With grace and fight, they essentially founded women's soccer while furthering women's sports.

They caught our eye with an Olympic gold in 1996. They touched our hearts with a World Cup championship in 1999.

Then with 15 seconds remaining in regulation Thursday, they touched our throats one last time when Hamm looped a perfect pass over the middle for Milbrett, who headed it into the corner to tie the score.

Milbrett raced across half the field into the arms of teammates. In front of the bench, there was dancing.

"I thought, 'We're going to win this,' " Chastain said. "I thought, we were going to come out and score again quick."

A couple of years ago, they would have.

But momentarily break away from the constant embrace in which we hold this team, and you will discover that something has been happening very quietly.

It's called life.

The veteran core of this team doesn't run the way it once did. It doesn't tackle as hard. It can't push for as long.

The U.S. played a brilliant first half Thursday, and the dramatic final seconds of regulation. But the extra period belonged to the younger and stronger.

With 11:11 elapsed in overtime, Fawcett tried to clear a ball in front of the goal with her head.

Instead, the ball hit Norway's Dagny Mellgren's upper arm, then the ground, then Mellgren chipped it into the back of the net.

Some thought Mellgren could have been called for a hand ball.

The U.S. team refused to complain.

"The referees are part of the game," Chastain said. "The only person you should ever look at after a loss is yourself."

Others thought goalkeeper Siri Mullinix, who gave up an earlier goal when she collided with Fawcett, could have played it better.

"Who here is perfect?" Chastain asked reporters.

After a long pause, she smiled and said, "Thank you for not answering."

The U.S. players wouldn't rip Mullinix, even though she earlier had taken the job from World Cup hero Briana Scurry.

They wouldn't criticize their new coach, April Heinrichs, even though she used only one substitute in the game and two of seven substitutes in the tournament.

They didn't criticize the wet field, the cool temperatures, the lukewarm crowd.

Shortly after only their second failure to win a major tournament in nine years, Milbrett and Chastain carried an American flag around one side of the field.

Then Chastain threw her shoes in the stands.

Then many of the U.S players turned and cheered Norway.

They took the loss as they have taken so many wins before, wearing the role-model mantle they have so eagerly draped on their shoulders.

"I don't think you have to be used to losing to be good at it," Heinrichs said. "It's easy to be a good human being when you win. But you will see they are exactly the same way tonight."

And now, they are leaving us.

They won't say it for sure, but the core of this team is expected to be gone by the time the next Women's World Cup is staged in 2003.

There is a chance that Chastain, Fawcett, Hamm, Foudy, Kristine Lilly and Carla Overbeck will all retire.

"We haven't talked about it," Foudy said. "But, yeah, it's hard."

This doesn't mean women's soccer here will be dead. Because of the impact of this first team, the replacement lines are long.

"They are a big nation and a great team and a lot of young players are coming up," said Per-Mathias Hogmo, Norway's coach. "It will be very hard to beat the U.S. in the future."

Chastain put it another way, a more important way.

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