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Randy Harvey

Poignantly, U.S. Success Plants Seed for the Defeat

October 06, 2003|Randy Harvey

PORTLAND, Ore. — U.S. Coach April Heinrichs called it "perhaps the greatest game ever played in women's soccer," and considering how many games she has seen since she played in the first Women's World Cup in 1991, who's going to argue?

But knowing the players on her team, several who were her teammates 12 years ago when the United States triumphed in China, that will not be much consolation. They certainly won't want that to become their legacy, that they played great almost to the bitter end of a 3-0 loss to Germany on Sunday at PGE Park.

Knowing players such as Mia Hamm, Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy and Kristine Lilly, they will want to be remembered for persevering after losses in the 2000 Summer Olympic final and the 2003 World Cup semifinals, then regrouping to win the gold medal in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.

That no doubt is what some were already thinking as they collapsed to the field in exhaustion and tears after the grueling game because that is the type of determined, strong-willed women we have come to know them as.

But just as time ran out on them in this game and in this World Cup, you have to wonder if time also has run out on a dynasty that included championships in two World Cups and one Olympics.

The rest of the world is catching up to the Americans. If Sunday's game is an indication, Germany has passed them like a Mercedes on the autobahn.

Several German players were on the field in the quarterfinals of the 1999 World Cup in Washington, where they twice led the United States before losing, 3-2. The Germans say now they lost that game because they didn't believe they could win.

They were so in awe of the Americans that German midfielder Maren Meinert said some of her teammates were tempted to ask them for autographs after the game. The Germans celebrated after this one. But not for long. They have a championship game to play this coming Sunday in Carson.

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What is the statute of limitations on second-guessing?

Eight days before the semifinal game, in the final game of first-round play, Heinrichs chose to rest some of her starters, including Hamm, against North Korea.

In retrospect, that might have been a mistake. Although Hamm is the leading all-time goal scorer in women's soccer, she has yet to have a truly spectacular performance in either a World Cup or an Olympics.

She has acknowledged that she was so unsure of herself in big moments that she didn't want to take one of the penalty kicks in the victory over China in the 1999 final at the Rose Bowl. She took one and scored.

It appeared, though, as if she were on her way to making this her World Cup. Brimming with confidence, she had three assists against Sweden and, in perhaps her best game ever, she had two goals and an assist against Nigeria.

But she sat against North Korea. She wasn't exactly MIA after that, but neither was she the magical Mia of before. The spell had been broken.

In Heinrichs' defense, she must have seen the same thing that most everyone else did. Even while the United States was dominating its first-round group, it was apparent at times that some of the veterans had lost a step in the last four years.

That includes Hamm, who turned 31 in March. Heinrichs must have believed that Hamm would need rest if she were to play at a high level for the rest of the tournament.

It also was important to give young players such as Kylie Bivens and Aly Wagner experience on the sport's ultimate stage if they are expected to play significant roles in the team's future, which, based on Sunday's result, could be here sooner than later.

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Asked to summarize her feelings for this year's U.S. team, Heinrichs said she was proud. She meant that she was proud of the effort in this game, the fact that the Americans, as did the Germans, played aggressive, attacking soccer for 90 minutes.

But she also could have been talking about the careers of her veteran players, who should be credited not only for winning so many games on the field but for creating a phenomenon off of it.

The ponytailed hooligans, as their young fans from coast to coast are known, were out in full force Sunday with their soccer moms and dads. Many among the crowd of 27,623 painted their faces red, white and blue and wore T-shirts with their favorite players' names on the back.

Two notable exceptions were the women who streaked across the field early in the second half. They wore nothing.

The U.S. women also inspired a professional league, which folded days before this tournament began but has earned a second chance. In doing so, they also contributed to their own defeat.

Meinert, who was the

WUSA's most valuable player last season for Boston, said she was considering retirement until her husband persuaded her to rejoin the German team for the World Cup. She also was persuaded by the pleas from the U.S. players in the WUSA, who told her that all the best players should play in the World Cup.

She returned the favor by breaking their hearts, scoring the goal in stoppage time that gave Germany a 2-0 lead. Forward Birgit Prinz, who played for Carolina in the WUSA, scored the final goal.

Someday, the U.S. players will realize how much they did for women's soccer. Maybe after Athens.

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Randy Harvey can be reached at randy.harvey@latimes.com.

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