So go ahead, lionize Akers. Her teammates do. They call her Mufasa, after the gallant feline in The Lion King, ostensibly for her long mane of curly hair but just as much for her unsurpassed strength. Though a devout Christian, she plays with a vengeance, and it was no coincidence that she was the only U.S. player to get a yellow card (two, in fact) in the tournament. "It's not like I go out there and think I'm the Terminator," she says. "I play hard, and people just bounce off me, or I go through them. I don't notice it until after I get hit in the face."
The KO of Akers nearly revived the Chinese, who had entered the final with the tournament's most potent offense. For almost the entire game the Americans had harried China with their version of a full-court press—the 100 defense—which prevented the Chinese midfielders from giving quick support to their forwards. But with Akers off the field during extra time, the Chinese began attacking with greater abandon. After taking just two shots on goal in the game's regulation 90 minutes, they fired three in the 30-minute extra time, including one that should have been decisive: defender Fan Yunjie's header off a corner kick. "I was like, Uh-oh, the ball's behind me," Scurry said later. But so, too, was Lilly. Stationed at her usual spot on the near post, she headed the ball off the goal line. "Just doing my job," Lilly said.
The Americans recovered to force the game into penalty kicks, which were knotted at two when midfielder Liu Ying faced Scurry. "I saw her body language when she was walking up to the penalty spot," Scurry said. "She didn't look like she really wanted to be there. Her shoulders were slumped, and she looked tired. I thought, This is the one."
Just as Liu approached the ball, Scurry sprang forward from her haunches and immediately leaped to her left, where she parried Liu's strong but poorly placed shot with ease. Though Scurry had violated the rules—goalkeepers are allowed to move laterally before the shot but forbidden from advancing toward the shooter—she was willing to take the risk. "If I jump out and save it, but the referee calls it back, they have to do it again," she said. "Now I know where they're shooting, and it's even more pressure on them."
Did somebody say pressure? After Lilly nailed her PK to give the U.S. a 3-2 lead and China drew even again to open the fourth round, no player had more pressure on her than Hamm, whose ensuing shot was a fascinating character study. When asked earlier in the tournament why she wasn't the team's top choice for taking penalty kicks, Hamm, the greatest goal scorer in soccer history, admitted that it was due to a shortage of confidence. Sure enough, in the last anxiety-filled minutes before the World Cup shootout, Hamm asked Gregg if forward Shannon MacMillan could take the shot instead. She couldn't, because DiCicco had already submitted the list—with Hamm's name on it—to the referee.
None of it mattered. Hamm, who went goalless after scoring twice in the first two games, banished her demons and buried her kick. After China's last kicker, star striker Sun Wen, converted to tie it at 4-all, up stepped Chastain, who had blamed herself for the loss to the Chinese in March. "I thought I had let my team down," she said on Saturday night. "In this environment everyone works so hard and puts themselves on the line. They didn't look at me and say, 'God, you let us down,' but I felt like that inside."
At the start of the Cup, DiCicco had made an odd request of the 30-year-old Chastain: Swatch to your left foot when practicing penalty kicks. "Whenever Brandi kicked with her right foot, she would always shoot to the goalkeeper's left," he explained. "It got to the point where the keeper knew where she was going." But Chastain is the U.S. player who is most adept with both feet, and she didn't flinch, just as she didn't when DiCicco moved her ahead of midfielder Julie Foudy on Gregg's list. Upon beating Gao—to the keeper's left, no less—Chastain fell to her knees like Bjorn Borg after winning Wimbledon and ripped off her jersey, waving it above her head to the thundering crowd.
It was the second time that a World Cup final at the Rose Bowl had ended on penalty kicks after a scoreless tie, though this was an entirely different game than the 1994 men's final, in which Brazil beat Italy. The main reason, of course, was that American fans were following their own team, suffering with it, waiting for that one tiny advantage that finally came in the shootout.
Whether the U.S. team accomplished its other mission—to generate a fan base and corporate support for a women's pro league—remains to be seen. Mark Abbott, the former CEO of Major League Soccer, is expected to present a business plan to the U.S. Soccer Federation by the end of the year for a proposed league that would begin play in 2001. The international soccer community, however, is circumspect. "There's a huge difference between the short focus of the World Cup, where all the stars are concentrated, and week-in and week-out games at a lower level," says FIFA spokesman Keith Cooper. "There are 30 outstanding, hard-core female players in the world. If you want a national league, say 10 teams, you only have three per team. There's a rapid falloff in talent from the top."
Crowds and TV viewers haven't exactly flocked to MLS, despite the commercial success here of the '94 Cup and a broader talent base of male players. Still, it's conceivable that a U.S. women's league would cater to more women and more suburban households than MLS. The U.S. team will also have another chance to drum up national support next summer, when it defends its Olympic title in Sydney.