ATHENS, Greece -- Mia Hamm knew her final game wasn't her best -- that her teammates deserved the credit for the gold medal around her neck.Heir apparent? Mia Hamm comes over to celebrate Abby Wambach's (left) winning goal against Brazil.
"They carried me tonight, that's for sure," Hamm said.
So be it. After all, for most of the last 17 years, Hamm has carried women's soccer.
Hamm left the game as a winner Thursday night, receiving her second gold medal to go with her two World Cup titles. The United States defeated Brazil 2-1 in overtime, a victory led by two goals from a next generation determined to give Hamm and her fellow vets a proper send-off.
"We wanted to send them out on top," said Lindsay Tarpley, who scored in the first half. "They've done so much for the women's game. To be able to win gold when some of them are retiring -- it's a great night."
The game marked the final competitive appearance together for the Fab Five, the remaining players from the first World Cup championship team in 1991. The five helped bring their sport to national prominence and captured the country's imagination by winning the World Cup in 1999, and together they have played in 1,230 international matches.
Hamm, Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett are retiring from the national team -- although they will play in a 10-game tour this fall -- leaving Kristine Lilly and Brandi Chastain as the last of the old guard. Hamm plans to start a family with her husband, Chicago Cubs shortstop Nomar Garciaparra.
"I talked about feeling good about where I was in my life, and this is a great way to end it," Hamm said.
Abby Wambach, the player who might break Hamm's records one day, scored the game-winning goal in the 112th minute with a powerful 10-yard header off a corner kick from Lilly. It was Wambach's fourth goal of the Athens Games and 18th in her last 20 games.
"It's the least we can do for the women who have meant so much to us," Wambach said.
The retiring players left happy with the final result, but the game itself showed why it was time for them to hang it up.
Maybe they were trying too hard, but the Americans were slower, less organized, less creative and lost the chase to most of the loose balls against the young Brazilians, who weren't afraid to shove the U.S. stars around.
Pretinha scored for Brazil in the 73rd, and the Brazilians twice hit the post later in regulation, coming within inches of what would have been the winning goal.
"We were bending, but we weren't breaking," U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry said. "They were throwing the kitchen sink at us, but I knew we had the heart to win it."
The U.S. team was rescued by Wambach's game-winner, some great saves from Scurry and Tarpley's goal in the 39th minute.
Hamm was a non-factor throughout, unable to find space to make the kind of runs that produced a world-record 153 goals in 266 games. She never once threatened to score and had no legs left in the overtime periods.
Asked if she was convinced that she was retiring, Hamm replied: "If you only knew how my body felt."
When the final whistle blew, Hamm was quickly swarmed by all 17 teammates. The team then took a victory lap, waving flags to the crowd of 10,416 at Karaiskaki Stadium.
Hamm clenched her fists under her chin and looked to the sky with teary eyes after arriving behind the podium for the medal ceremony. She blew a kiss to the crowd when her name was announced.
Brazil received its first women's soccer medal after finishing fourth at the last two Olympics. Germany, which beat Sweden 1-0 in the third-place game, took the bronze.
The win helped erase the sting of the Americans' loss to Norway in the gold-medal game in Sydney four years ago and a third-place finish at last year's World Cup. In the 1990s, Hamm and her U.S. teammates ruled the sport, but other teams have caught up.
The victory also offers a measure of vindication for coach April Heinrichs, who took over after the 1999 World Cup triumph and failed to win the top prize in 2000 or 2003.
The team was captained for the last time by Foudy, who played the entire 120 minutes just three days after spraining her right ankle in the semifinal victory over Germany.
The Americans were out of sorts from the opening whistle. They couldn't handle the Brazilian pressure and could barely string two passes together to get their possession game going.
The Brazilians also came out playing very physically, pushing and grabbing whenever they could get away with it. Coach Rene Simoes accused the Americans of trying to hurt his players when the two teams met in a 2-0 U.S. victory in the first round last week, but this time his team was clearly the aggressor.
Scurry, while not announcing her retirement, has also said this will be her last Olympics. Her teammates had her to thank for not trailing by a goal at halftime.
Scurry dived right, stretching her body as far as it could go, to barely get a piece of Elaine's 19-yard shot in the sixth minute. In the 41st, Scurry somehow pushed away a short drive from Cristiane that deflected off Chastain, ending a furious sequence that began with an indirect free kick from 10 yards out.
Given Brazil's control of the first half, Tarpley's goal seemed to come out of nowhere. In a rare attack for the U.S. team, she found space to launch a 24-yard drive that skirted two defenders and curled just inside the left post in the 39th minute.
But the Brazilians kept pressing, and their goal seemed inevitable.
Cristiane, 19, ran past 36-year-old Fawcett with ease down the left flank, then beat defender Kate Markgraf before sliding a cross toward Pretinha. Scurry could only get a hand on the pass, leaving Pretinha alone for the easy shot to tie the score.
Cristiane was just wide right with a long curling shot two minutes later, then hit the left post with a 20-yard drive. In the 88th minute, Pretinha beat Scurry with a 16-yard shot, but it also hit the left post.
The U.S. team, the oldest in the tournament, was playing its sixth game in 16 days -- and its second straight 120-minute overtime game.
Even so, the Americans found a way to win it.
"There are few times in your life where you get to write the final chapter the way you want to," Hamm said. "I think a lot of us did that tonight."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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