By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Foxboro, MassachusettsFor those of you just tuning in to watch the U.S. squad in the 1999 Women's World Cup, there have been no big surprises, and no real challenges. The most compelling moments of the first round came at the beginning of the breakneck-paced and highly physical matchup against Nigeria, when the team was down a goal for the only time in this world championship tournament before coming back and pasting the Nigerians 7-1. And the only shocker Sunday night in Foxboro for fans and teammates alike was that Tisha Venturini knew how to do a backflip, which she did handily after scoring her second goal in the U.S.'s 3-0 win over North Korea.
"She pulled one out of the closet," said teammate Julie Foudy of the celebratory alley-oop. But Venturini's performance and that of game MVP Shannon MacMillan caught no one off guard. Twenty-six-year-old Tish notched both goals with her noggin. But more than anything, she has shown that she has a good head on her shoulders by accepting her recent role as a sub not an easy one considering she started every match of the '96 Olympics (scoring twice, including one game-winner) and packs over 100 caps in her World Cup bag. Her production is hard to top, as is that of MacMillan another ex-starter who was the top scorer in the Atlanta Games. The performances from these two were evidence of another U.S. non-surprise: there is no dearth of depth on this squad.
"I knew we were deep," said U.S. coach Tony DiCicco after Sunday's win. And since their final first-round match was hardly a high-pressure one for the Americans (they were virtually assured a trip to the quarterfinals), it was an ideal time to test the bench. It was also a chance and rest some starter stems. But Korea was playing to win; it needed what would have been the upset of the decade to advance to the next round and also to earn a spot in the 2000 Olympics. At halftime, it was zip-zip, and the last thing DiCicco and the players not to mention some nonsoccer-savvy sponsors wanted was the first scoreless tie of the tournament. One very high-profile vet remained on the field as the Americans walked into the locker room to regroup.
Was it time to can the "Hamm"? Mia had already served up plenty in the first round. After the match, Hamm said that she and DiCicco "never really talked about" her sitting out for any of the Korea game. It certainly would have been hard to imagine. The crowd for the third U.S. match may not have been a sellout, but at 50,484 it was damn close. And based on the sea of No. 9 jerseys, many of those tickets were bought by moms and dads so their daughters could stand on wobbly, grass-stained knees crying "Miiiiaaaa!"
Hamm's removal at halftime showed not only the depth of talent on the team, but more important, the depth of support for the Amerks by their fans. They've become better acquainted with the squad despite the press's desire to turn team media coverage into "Mia-dia" coverage. Screams for Scurry and cheers for Chastain are now heard regularly from fans lined up at gates outside the locker rooms.
"I'm all for that," Hamm enthused. "I always put the team first."
Thursday's quarterfinal pits the U.S. against Germany, a highly organized squad with a never-give-in, 90-minute mentality one that earned it second place in the '95 Cup (where the Americans came in third). Now hopefully gone are the routs and the blowouts. It's single-elimination time, ladies. Let the realgames and surprises begin.