Old to new. Could there have been a better way to seal the U.S. women's soccer team's 2-1 victory over Germany in Monday's Olympic semifinals? Five years ago Heather O'Reilly was a Mia Hamm nut, a pigtailed hooligan who wore Hamm's number 9 jersey, had bedroom posters of her idol and spent the 1999 Women's World Cup "screaming my head off for Mia." But there they were on Monday, Hamm and O'Reilly, the 17-year national-team veteran and the 19-year-old phenom, connecting on the Americans' most important goal of the 21st century.
Thanks to O'Reilly's game-winner in extra time, Hamm and the U.S. team's other retiring stalwarts, midfielder Julie Foudy and defender Joy Fawcett, would survive to play for the gold medal against Brazil on Thursday. "What these women have done for the past 15 years is so remarkable," O'Reilly said afterward, outside Heraklio's Pankritio Stadium. "As young players we wouldn't be happy putting them out without anything but a gold."
The heart-stopping win, which came after the Germans had scored a crushing equalizer with only moments left in regulation, didn't just avenge a bitter semifinal loss in last year's Women's World Cup and set up a potentially triumphant Farewell Finale. It also signaled the Americans' return to championship-level form after a year of behind-the-scenes turmoil, including a groundswell among veteran players to have coach April Heinrichs ousted.
Some background: Entering the Games, the U.S. didn't hold either the Olympic or World Cup title for the first time since 1996. The Americans' 3-2 loss to Norway in the 2000 Olympic gold medal game could be explained away as an undeserved result in a classic encounter. But last year's dismal showing against Germany--a 3-0 defeat on home soil, no less--revealed fundamental flaws in a crumbling empire. Against the more skillful Germans, Heinrichs never deviated from the curious strategy of sending alltime-leading scorer Hamm out wide, where she air-mailed harmless crossing passes at the goalkeeper. It was like asking Barry Bonds to bunt in a World Series game.
The third-place finish left Heinrichs 0 for 2 in world championships after replacing Tony DiCicco, who had resigned after leading the team to the 1999 World Cup title. Fed up with losing and emboldened by disgruntled comments from her fellow veterans, defender Brandi Chastain approached U.S. Soccer Federation president Bob Contiguglia last December at the draw for the 2006 men's World Cup in Frankfurt. According to a source close to the team, she asked that Heinrichs be fired. Contiguglia told her no.
"It's an internal issue," said Contiguglia, who last week confirmed there was a meeting but would not discuss what was said. "Everyone has their feelings. I'm open to anybody and will listen to anybody."
Neither Chastain nor Heinrichs would comment about the meeting last week, so it's hard to measure its effect (including whether it influenced Heinrich's decision to bench Chastain for the first three Olympic matches). Clearly, the failed coup was a rare miscalculation by the players in their history of often acrimonious dealings with the USSF. They are acutely aware of their popularity--Hamm is by far the most recognizable American soccer player, male or female, according to a recent federation survey--and they have shrewdly leveraged that fame over the years, winning concessions from U.S. Soccer on several issues: the right of each player to choose which brand of shoe to wear; per-game salaries that equal those of the men's team; and clearance to stage a lucrative post-World Cup indoor tour in '99 using their own promoter.
Yet Contiguglia, a mild-mannered Denver kidney specialist known in soccer circles as Dr. Bob, has proved far less malleable than observers expected when he replaced the flamboyant Alan Rothenberg in 1998. Two months after taking over, Contiguglia selected Bruce Arena as the U.S. men's coach over the wishes of Rothenberg, who had favored hiring a foreign coach. Buoyed by the success of that decision--Arena's team reached the World Cup 2002 quarterfinals, the best U.S. performance since 1930--Contiguglia has stood fast on Heinrichs, her results in major tournaments be damned.
"To say we lost the World Cup because of the coach is ridiculous," says Contiguglia, citing the retirement of star Michelle Akers in 2000, the rise of women's soccer in other countries and the challenge of mixing young prospects with aging veterans. "People have to have realistic expectations. My job is to weigh the perception and the reality of the whole program, and April has done a tremendous job. As our technical director she has built the [U.S. youth] teams into powerhouses, so our future is incredibly bright. And I can tell you the national team is better today than ever before: tactically, technically and fitness-wise."
Monday's rematch against Germany provided the perfect opportunity to prove Contiguglia right while exacting sweet revenge. "It's like you've got another chance, another life almost," Foudy said before the game. She also believed that the players were more united than ever, not least because the five veterans from the '91 team--Hamm, 32; Foudy, 33; Chastain, 36; Fawcett, 36; and Kristine Lilly, 33--were competing in their last major tournament together.
No player seemed more cognizant of that than Hamm, who repeatedly knifed through the German defenders and cut toward the goal--which was how she set up O'Reilly's 99th-minute score from six yards out. Before the match Hamm had watched clips of last year's World Cup loss and decided that, well, Barry Bonds needed to swing for the fences. "I wasn't as aggressive as I should have been [last year]," she said. "If it's an organized back line, the way you beat it is to try and tear it apart."
Tear it apart. It was a merciless sentiment from women's soccer's most merciless goal scorer, suddenly back at the top of her game.