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End of an era

U.S. mourns final game for core of team

Posted: Friday September 29, 2000 4:58 AM
Updated: Tuesday November 14, 2000 10:32 AM

  Mia Hamm Mia Hamm went from jubilation after her game-winning kick against Brazil, to desolation after losing to Norway. AP

SYDNEY, Australia (CNNSI.com) -- Fifteen hours after their sudden-death overtime loss in the gold medal game, the U.S. women's soccer team was still crying.

After a decade of emotional bonding, there were tears of uncertainly of what's to come. The players will part ways to launch a professional league.

"Oh, God, please stop this!" said Mia Hamm, breaking up after retiring co-captain Carla Overbeck spoke of how she hoped to explain these past special years to her children.

"Can I borrow some sunglasses?" said Overbeck, trying to laugh it off as the players tossed the orange box her way.

It may sound corny when used elsewhere, but the team's "we did it for each other" motto really fits this group of players. After Thursday night's 3-2 loss to Norway, the players and their families went to what had been planned as a victory party. No one knew exactly how to feel; they just were glad to be feeling it with each other.

"No matter who the doubters are," said Hamm, her voice quivering. "Or who says certain things, these people for the 14 years I've been on this team have never doubted each other. There is no better feeling than putting on a USA jersey. It has been an honor. And I hope it continues to be an honor. We played our hearts out, and that in a nutshell is what our team is all about. We left everything out there on the field, and you can't do anything more."

 
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Unable to continue, Hamm bounced the microphone in her lap.

When Hamm said she hoped the honor would continue, she looked at coach April Heinrichs, who took over the team this year. Heinrichs wasn't a part of last year's emotional World Cup run, but she played on the team that won the World Cup in 1991 back when no one was paying attention.

"This year was not the storybook; '99 was the storybook. But the year 2000 was a journey. And maybe the silver will always have us bonded together,' said Heinrichs, hitting the emotional wall. "Pass the tissues."

Heinrichs has the burden of deciding how much to overhaul this popular team by the time the next major competition, the 2003 World Cup, comes around. Only Overbeck has said for sure she's retiring, and Heinrichs said it wouldn't make sense to purge all the veterans.

"You hear players talk about possible retirement," Heinrichs said. "You just don't know if somebody has it in them now, will they have it in three years? You just want to let the dust settle."

Heinrichs said the loss to Norway will live with the team for "four or five years." The Americans dominated the first half with smooth, flowing soccer but were tied 1-1 at the break. The winning overtime goal perhaps should have been disallowed by the referee because the ball touched the arm of the Norwegian scorer.

"You know the lesson here? Life ain't fair." Heinrichs said. "I watched 102 minutes of soccer last night. The sheer excellence with which we played, the chances we had, the flurry that we had in front of their goal. They had three shots on goal, and they had three goals. It's not `Oh, bummer, it hit her arm.' It's multiple things."

Players on both sides agreed it was one of the greatest women's soccer games ever, a very rare occurrence for a championship game, when play is usually tense and defensive. The Americans tied it 2-2 in the dying seconds of the second half to force overtime. They did what they do best -- control the ball on the ground - and the Norwegians did what they do best -- send it long toward the net and hope someone puts it in.

Fans of the game can only hope that the new U.S. league, the eight-team WUSA, will produce the same kind of drama when it debuts in April. The league will be a new test of the sport's popularity. Will the same fans who pack stadiums when the national team comes to town be willing to show up every week to watch a club team with only a couple of stars?

"The myth of the female athletics garnering attention only once every four years has been blown out of the water," co-captain Julie Foudy said.

The league will also create some awkward rivalries and bedfellows. Having played together for so many years, these players will be kicking and fouling and trying to beat each other when, say, Mia Hamm's Washington franchise visits Brandi Chastain's team in the Bay Area.

Also, foreign players will be in the league. At least four players from Norway, that longtime nemesis that stole the Americans' gold, are expected to sign with the WUSA and become teammates with their rivals.

"You hate the entity. You hate with a passion the entity," midfielder Lorrie Fair. "Obviously, I don't know them, but we'll get to know them. The Norway team, sure we hate them, but I'm sure they're very nice people."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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