By John Philip Wyllie
For the second time in four years, Southern California soccer fans had the opportunity last weekend to witness the dramatic conclusion of a Women’s World Cup. While not as spectacular or grandiose as its 1999 predecessor, the two-day event played before near capacity crowds at Carson’s beautiful new Home Depot Center offered quality soccer, high drama, colorful, enthusiastic fans and a touch of sadness.
Saturday’s third place match featured the United States against surprising Canada. It was a black and blue affair with crunching tackles, swinging elbows and violent collisions. Don’t look for any of the Canadian players to be on the Christmas lists of any of their American counterparts. And the feeling is mutual. Much to the delight of the highly partisan U.S. crowd, Team USA redeemed itself for its semifinal loss to Germany taking a 3-1 decision over the ever-improving Canadians.
Veteran American mid-fielder Kristine Lilly opened the scoring in the 22nd minute smacking a shot into the upper right corner. Canada knotted the score 16 minutes later when Christine Sinclair capitalized on a well placed pass from former San Diego Spirit forward Christine Latham and then beat Briana Scurry with a shot into the lower left corner. The U.S. took the lead early in the second half on a goal by another former Spirit star, Shannon Boxx. They then put the game on ice in the 80th minute when Tiffeny Milbrett found the range with a left-footed shot off of a rebound.
“It was a difficult week getting ready for this game emotionally,” confided U.S. national team coach April Heinrichs, “but I was very proud with the way the team played today.”
For a team whose motto going into the tournament was “win now, win forever,” a convincing victory in the third place game was little consolation for the loss last week that crushed its hopes of securing back to back world championships. There was little celebration afterward and many of the players hurriedly left the media mixed zone as if they had someplace more important to go. With the tournament now complete and their women’s professional league facing an uncertain future, they could find themselves with a lot of time on their hands in the coming months.
For the quintet of veterans from the 1991 championship team, the event probably marked the last time they will play in World Cup competition. Mia Hamm, Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly and Brandi Chastain will all likely retire from international competition following next year’s Olympics.
“I’m always proud to be a part of this team,” said Hamm. “I think today makes me even more that way. Everyone came together and fought until the end. It was an emotional victory today. We had to play with our hearts today and I think we did that.”
24 hours later, only Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain (who were doing TV commentary) remained to watch Germany edge Sweden and take possession of the trophy that had been theirs since ‘99. The lack of U.S. involvement did not dampen the spirits of the festive, near capacity crowd some of which arrived in yellow and blue face paint and Swedish Viking helmets or wrapped in German flags. The exciting, attacking, skillful soccer they witnessed made them no doubt glad to be there.
Unlike the brutal, physical, third place match, the final was decided more by technical skill and tactical brilliance as well as solid defensive effort on both ends of the field. Sweden, playing in its first final, gave the favored Germans a run for their money playing them even for more than 90 minutes before falling in overtime 2-1.
German defender Nia Kuenzer became the game’s unlikely heroine. Playing in only the final 11 minutes of the match, Kuenzer scored a golden goal on a header off of a Renate Lingor free kick. The goal was only the second of her entire national team career.