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Mia the Magnificent stars for U.S. team

Posted: Sunday, September 28, 2003

PHILADELPHIA The very definition of greatness has been on display by women's soccer's greatest player. Mia Hamm has been nothing short of magnificent in the World Cup.

Scoring, assisting, playmaking, tackling, defending, Hamm has not missed a beat in the two United States victories. At 31 and appearing, she says, in her final World Cup, the sport's career scoring leader has shown the kind of versatility, relentlessness and overall command of the game that identifies her as a special player.

''I think Mia's at the top of her game, for sure right now,'' said Cindy Parlow, who has two header goals off Hamm's perfect corner kicks in this tournament. ''She's played great. She's given this team so much.''

Hamm always has given it her best, but she hasn't always played at this level. In recent years, injuries have slowed her.

Not now.

''She's healthy,'' Parlow said. ''It's hard to be on top of your game when you're not healthy. This is the healthiest she's been in a few years.''

Slowed by knee surgery in 2002, Hamm appeared on the decline. But fully recovered, she had a strong WUSA season this year, tying with teammate Abby Wambach for the league scoring lead and guiding the Washington Freedom to the championship.

With her scoring touch back, Hamm also has concentrated on sharpening other aspects of her game. U.S. coach April Heinrichs encourages versatility in all her players, and at times she has dropped Hamm back to the midfield into more of a playmaker's role.

Plus, Hamm takes nearly all of the corner kicks and free kicks, giving her more opportunities to set up teammates something she seems to enjoy as much as putting the ball home, which Hamm has done a record 144 times in international play.

''She was at a whole other level than what we've seen,'' Heinrichs said. ''She's very competitive. She is finding ways to compete as a forward, as a midfielder, using her brain. You saw how sophisticated she was when we dropped her into the midfield.

''She's a playmaker, a goal scorer, a leader. I think we are seeing Mia at her very best.''

You won't hear such things from Hamm, the only American to start every World Cup match. Ask her about teammates or opponents, she'll offer accurate, sometimes detailed analyses.

Ask about her achievements and she is reticent.

''Soccer is a team game,'' she said earlier in the tournament. ''One player won't make that much of a difference because one player doesn't win, the team wins.''

With their two victories, the Americans sit atop Group A heading to Columbus for Sunday's final opening-round match with North Korea. A tie will advance the United States to the quarterfinals.

But a tie would be a huge disappointment the way the defending champions are playing particularly Hamm.

She nearly had a hat trick in the first 14 minutes Thursday night against Nigeria. After putting in a penalty kick in the sixth minute, her arcing 35-yard free kick eluded the leap of goalie Precious Dede and settled into the net in the 12th.

Moments later, Hamm made a brilliant move on the left wing and sent a blistering shot that just curled outside the net.

In the second half, after setting up Parlow's goal, Hamm also hit the post.

''There is a certain urgency in her play,'' Heinrichs said. ''What you see is a woman who wants to find ways to win and the way is to get everyone around her to play better.''

Can Hamm play any better? Wambach wouldn't be surprised to see it.

''She has had so many moments of brilliance,'' Wambach said. ''You can't say one game or one practice is her best, and you know she believes she can do so much more.''



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