Passing of an era

Updated: August 25, 2004, 6:48 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

ATHENS, Greece -- Mia, win another championship so you can share it with Nomar.

Joy, add a final Olympic medal so each of your three children can wear one.

Julie, rub some mud on that ankle and get out there to lead the team again.

Kristine, come through with yet another goal as you have done throughout the Olympics.

And Brandi, no one would complain if you ripped off your shirt one last time.

Brazil Eager For Rematch
Brazil gave the Americans their toughest challenge of these Olympics, dominating them in the scoreless first half of a first-round game last week. Fortunate not to be trailing by a couple of goals, the U.S. team rallied in the second half for a 2-0 victory.

This week, Brazil's players said their strong early showing in that game has given them hope they can beat the U.S. team for only the second time ever. The other legacy from that game is coach Rene Simoes' accusation that the Americans tried to deliberately hurt his players with rough fouls in the second half.

The Americans say they weren't as rough as the Brazilians. They also know the rematch could get nasty.

"It's not the first time they've talked like that,'' U.S. midfielder Julie Foudy said. "They can come hard -- they always do. But at the same time, you can use that against them. They come so hard, they're easy to beat.''
-- Associated Press
After bonding closer than most families over the past 18 years, the core of the U.S. women's soccer program will try to go out on a grand note Thursday by adding yet another championship in the Olympics gold-medal game against Brazil. Mia Hamm, Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly and Brandi Chastain have been playing together since the late 1980s, lifting women's sports to undreamt levels and giving girls everywhere poster alternatives to *NSYNC.

"I think what we have done over the last 18 years is bring soccer to another level," Lilly said in a pre-Olympics interview. "It has been amazing to be there from the beginning where no one knew we won the World Cup in 1991 to now. To see that progression is probably the greatest thing in my career so far."

But now it's time to say goodbye to teammates who have become the tightest family since Sister Sledge. With two World Cup championships -- including the influential 1999 victory -- an Olympic gold medal in 1996 and a silver in 2000, the heart and soul of the team will go their separate ways. Hamm, Fawcett and Foudy -- who might have already played her last game since her status is uncertain with a sprained ankle -- are retiring from the national team. Hamm wants to start a family with her new husband, Chicago Cubs shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. Foudy is also thinking about kids, but she expects to remain active in social and political issues. Fawcett already has three children to raise.

Chastain says she'll keep playing "as long as they let me,'' but she is 36 years old and is unlikely to last until the next World Cup in 2007. Lilly, who has played in more international games than any man or woman, has already said she won't make it to 2007.

"I'll miss being here with these players,'' said Hamm, the game's all-time leading scorer and most recognizable face. "And learning from them, and growing and experiencing the greatest of times and the worst of times.''

Fittingly, they've gone from Athens to Athens. They first reached national prominence in Athens, Ga., at the 1996 Olympics when goaltender Briana Scurry brashly promised to run through the streets if the United States won. She did, but that wasn't the end of the streaking for the U.S. women. They wound up soaring into the American conscious, providing role models for a generation of girls.

The Americans continued to dominate the sport, winning the 1999 World Cup. But their success prompted other nations to invest in women's soccer for the first time. Those countries are catching up; Norway won gold four years ago in Sydney, and Germany won the World Cup on U.S. soil last year.

Their final game with Brazil could get interesting. After a 2-0 U.S. victory in the qualifying round last week, Brazil's coach accused the Americans of trying to deliberately hurt his players.

It's the United States with the injury concerns, though. Foudy sprained her right ankle in the semifinal against Germany, left the stadium on crutches and is questionable for the championship game. Facing a possible final game with her band of sisters, you know she'll be out there if it is at all possible. "I think I'll have them chop it off and drag my stump out there if I have to," the team captain told reporters.

The United States is not the dominating team it was in previous years, needing an overtime goal by Heather O'Reilly to beat Germany 2-1 to reach the gold-medal game. It was an appropriate goal -- O'Reilly grew up with Hamm posters hanging in her bedroom, is a sophomore at Hamm's alma mater of North Carolina and is considered Hamm's heir apparent.

Following the championship game, the Girls of Summer will go on to the rest of their lives and it will be up to O'Reilly and her teammates to carry on the legacy they -- and the rest of the veterans -- created.

"Our effect on the world and on little girls and boys has gone far beyond the scope of any of us ever imagined it could be," Scurry said. "I think for us to win would be great, but we don't have to win to see and feel the legacy that we have left because it is already well established."

And so are the friendships.

"When I think of this team, I just think of laughing a lot," Hamm said. "Whether it is a practice or a bus ride, I have just had a really unbelievable time.

"I will miss our federation paying for us to come in and hang out together and occasionally play some soccer."

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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