SYDNEY -- The team that brought new life to American soccer ran out of lives Thursday night, a wild game and a magic ride both ending on the sting of one final kick.
The United States women's soccer team lost 3-2 in extra time Thursday, allowing the most crushing goal any of them had experienced just minutes after one of the most uplifting. Dagny Mellgren scored from the goal mouth in the 102nd minute of the gold-medal game in Sydney to lift Norway over the Americans and give the U.S. women to their first loss at the world level since the 1995 World Cup.
The loss also dropped the favored Americans to a silver medal in the 2000 Games, while Germany took the bronze medal.
"I think we walk off the field with tears in our eyes, but incredibly proud of one another and our accomplishments,'' said U.S. coach April Heinrichs. "We played some of our best soccer in this tournament and we played magnificently tonight. The players know they left every ounce of effort they had on that field tonight.''
They also left many opportunities.
The U.S. controlled play throughout, particular in the first half, when they had the ball in their possession roughly twice as long as Norway did. Just as they had in their first game against Norway in Sydney, the Americans scored early, taking a 1-0 lead on Tiffany Milbrett's goal off a Mia Hamm feed.
But, unlike that pool-play game, the U.S. did not increase its lead, falling to capitalize on all the time it spent in Norway's end.
"We couldn't have started better,'' said Heinrichs. "It's a coach's dream to push the ball around the way we were and to have as much possession as we did.
"But Norway are champions. They're just mentally tough. This is a game of shifts and a game of momentum. And I think when walked in at halftime, they were feeling good about themselves that the game wasn't different.''
It was different than it could have been, however.
Instead of being up by multiple goals at the break, the U.S. was tied after Norway's Gro Espeseth scored on a header off a corner kick a minute and a half before halftime. Perhaps spurred by the late goal, the Norwegians started the second half strongly, but the U.S. again took control of play, if not the scoreboard.
From the midway point of the second half, the U.S. had several scoring opportunities, including three from directly in front of the net, but Norway goalie Bente Nordby stopped all of them. She deflected a point-blank shot by Milbrett just wide at the 55:18 mark and then stoned Kristine Lilly on another just inside the 60th minute. She made a leaping fingertip stop on a blast by Hamm 10 minutes later and made a diving save on another Lilly shot 72:58 into the game.
"She had a great game tonight,'' Milbrett said of Nordby. "She made some big saves for them, especially on Mia's shot.''
The biggest plays in the other goal worked against the U.S.
Siri Mullinix, who was frozen on Norway's opening goal, moved too much to set up their second. With 12 minutes left in regulation, Mullinix came out on a long ball that was put in front by Marianne Pettersen, but collided with defender Joy Fawcett. The ball deflected off Ragnhild Gulbrandsen and skidded into the U.S. net for a 2-1 Norway lead and what appeared the end of America's reign in women's world soccer.
But, even if the U.S. had little time, they still had plenty of hope.
"No chance this team is ever going to give up,'' said Heinrichs. "There was never a doubt in my mind.''
She was perhaps the only person at the Sydney Football Stadium who felt that way.
With the U.S. applying little pressure, extra time wound near an end when Hamm took a pass into the right corner. She wheeled around and sent a feed toward the goalmouth that was too high for Lilly but dropped right to Milbrett, who headed it into the corner of the goal.
But, what appeared to be the biggest goal of the 2000 Olympics simply delayed a disappointing finish to the Games for the U.S.
At the 11:11 mark of sudden death, Norway's Hege Riise lofted the ball to the front of the U.S. net. Fawcett headed it for the U.S., but it deflected into Mellgren, dropping right at the Norway forward's feet. In alone, she sent a shot toward the right corner of the net that Mullinix was in position to stop, but the ball slipped under her left arm for the gold-medal goal.
The ball appeared to be close to Mellgren's arm when it hit her, which would have negated the goal, but afterwards, the Americans conceded it was a legal play. And a devastating one.
"It's numbing, especially when you come out and give it everything you've got to give,'' said Milbrett. "It's almost something that will be delayed. I'm not even feeling everything I'm going to feel yet.''
What the silver medalists won't feel, they say, is shame.
During the last four years, they have lifted their sport like no other in America, boosting fan interest and participation by winning the gold medal at the 1996 Olympics and winning the World Cup two years later. While the second of those championships was the first time soccer was a ratings success in the States, the real impact of this team could be seen next April, when a women's professional soccer league begins play in the U.S.
But, with the next World Cup not for another three years, it is likely several of these players have competed at this level for the last time, that a chapter in U.S. women's soccer closed with Mellgren's crushing goal.
But, while it finished with tears, they say it can still be a happy ending.
"I think what we've done in women's soccer is tremendous,'' said forward Cindy Parlow. "There is more interest than ever and there are more fans than ever. When we get back, they'll still be there and they'll still support us.
"This was just a soccer game tonight. We would have liked to have won it, but we'll go on.''
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