On this day: U.S. women capitalize on golden opportunity | 1996 Atlanta Olympics

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Editor’s Note: This story was published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Aug. 2, 1996, after the largest crowd to see a women’s match anywhere crowded Georgia’s Sanford Stadium. This is a daily take of the events that transpired on the 25th anniversary of the Games in Atlanta.

ATHENS — The U.S. women rocked the soccer world Thursday night, taking a sport owned by men in many other countries to another level. The Americans defeated China 2-1 and seized the first Olympic gold medal to be awarded in the sport.

The game was watched by 76,481 fans, the largest crowd ever to attend an Olympic men’s or women’s match. It also was the largest crowd to see a women’s match anywhere. When it was over, the U.S. team was showered with standing ovations.

“Oh, my gosh, it’s the best feeling in the world. It took 90 minutes to wear these guys down,” said Shannon MacMillan, as she finished a victory lap with her teammates, waving flags and embracing each other over and over.

“Everybody had nicks and cuts, but we trained all year for this. There was no way we were going to let the whole team down.”

The Chinese threw everything they had at the U.S. team, but in the game’s 68th minute, Tiffeny Milbrett fielded a short cross kick from Joy Fawcett and kicked the ball into the goal. It was relentless striker Mia Hamm who launched that play, as she did the team’s earlier score by MacMillan. In between, she seemed to run Chinese defenders ragged. And the Chinese responded by tripping the U.S. forward at every opportunity. Hamm lasted until the 90th minute, when she was carried off on a stretcher.

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Moments later, Hamm was carried back out on the field to embrace her teammates in a group hug.

While the Chinese failed to get close to the goal early in the match, MacMillan, the same player who ended Norway’s gold medal hopes in the semifinal, scored in the 18th minute off a richocheting shot that Hamm had smacked into the left goalpost.

The pro-U.S. crowd erupted into hysteria as the players fell into a circle on the ground. But China tied it 14 minutes later, temporarily silencing the crowd with a deftly maneuvered flip kick over the head of U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry, who had moved out of the goal area.

The remainder of the first half was a free-for-all, with players on both sides stretching the normal boundaries of their positions in a frantic chase for the ball. The referee raised several yellow cards against both teams.

Defender Brandi Chastain said the team altered its strategy at halftime to squeeze China in the midfield.

“We wanted to force turnovers in the middle of the field and get our forwards behind them,” said Chastain.

It worked. China couldn’t seem to launch a shot from closer than 18 yards. Meanwhile, Hamm, Milbrett and MacMillan were continually penetrating the Chinese defense. Finally, Milbrett scored.

“Everyone out there fought with their heart and soul,” MacMillan said.

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