American soccer g-o-o-l-d ... is not to be

The stunning loss by the United States women's soccer team here last night to Norway, 3-2, in the Olympic gold-medal game, happened with the speed of a pickpocket.

It was done so quickly, and seemed so improbable.

Indeed, 12 minutes into sudden-death overtime, the ball bounced off American Joy Fawcett's head and fell at the feet of Norway substitute Dagny Mellgren. From some eight yards out, Mellgren kicked the ball just to the left and past the diving US goalkeeper, Siri Mullinix.

In truth, Mullinix has made many far more difficult saves and this one definitely was savable.

But this game may have not been meant to be for the Americans - the defending Olympic champs - to win. Although they got off to an early 1-0 lead on a score by Tiffeny Milbrett, and were playing well, they were unable to seize control despite Norway's struggles. Just before the half, Norway scored its first goal - deflating because it came just as the US was thinking it would go in at the break leading by one even though it should be up by more.

Suddenly, the landscape had changed.

Midway in the second period, Norway scored to go up 2-1 and it seemed, as time ticked by, that they would win as the US failed to convert numerous scoring chances. Norway players looked increasingly happy and relaxed; American players looked increasingly gloomy and tight.

And then, out of nowhere - like a pickpocket - Milbrett was back at it again, driving home a goal with literally seconds left in the game.

This kind of thing sometimes signals to a team that even though it's having a tough time, it still has a serious chance.

That may have been the signal but it was not the reality.

Along came Mellgren's winning goal. But US coach April Heinrichs was unbowed: "Our game today was golden." Said Brandi Chastain, "I think the expectation everyone puts on us can't possibly be as high as those we put on ourselves."

Maybe, just maybe, the US was living on borrowed time, anyway, going back to its semifinal 1-0 victory over Brazil in Canberra on Sunday.

There, Milbrett was very close to interfering with the Brazilian goalkeeper, which left Mia Hamm alone to score the winning goal. Later, Milbrett admitted that a foul "definitely" could have been called.

While Mullinix blew a play in the gold game she normally would make, in fairness she made a brilliant save against Brazil that probably saved the day. Chastain insisted afterward that she never felt "we were in danger of going down" to the Brazilians. Others did.

The point is, the US women have been good but not dominating here. Several days before the game with Norway, Heinrichs was pointing out how much improved the world of women's soccer is. Teams like China and Brazil, and obviously the US and Norway, are all capable of sensational performance.

And sometimes not.

The Olympics loss is one thing. But arguably, more significant longer term will be what happens to the US team.

Observers may have seen the last of Chastain, known for ripping off her jersey after hitting the winning goal last year to win the World Cup over China; of Hamm, the best soccer player in the world; of Carla Overbeck, last year's captain, who has already announced she's through; of dependable veteran July Foudy. Prior to the Olympics, longtime star Michelle Akers retired because of an injury.

These are big-time core players and they have produced magic like no other group.

Everyone will lick their wounds for a while and then decisions will be made. The team in Athens in four years unquestionably will look much different.

Yet, if the US had to be conquered, Norway is acceptable. It is a worthy and tough opponent. This year, the two played eight times and Norway ended with the edge, 4-3-1. All time, Norway is the only team in the world with a winning record against the Americans, 15-13-2.

Along the way, Heinrichs said of her team that they never quit and "we find a way to win."

She was half right.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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