BY SCOTT FRENCH IN SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA
The United States' four years of mastery over women's soccer came to an abrupt and dramatic end Thursday night, victim to a controversial golden goal in what might have been the greatest women's match ever contested.
Dagny Mellgren slid a ball past U.S. goalkeeper Siri Mullinix 12 minutes into overtime to deliver a 3-2 victory, and the Sydney Olympics gold medal, to Norway before 22,848 at the Sydney Football Stadium.
It completed a marvelous encounter that featured a little of everything, including a last-second-of-regulation header by Tiffeny Milbrett that forced the extra period.
The Americans, who won the gold medal in the first Olympic women's soccer competition, at the 1996 Atlanta Games, and captured the 1999 Women's World Cup title on home soil, settled for silver despite playing its best game since its one-sided 2-0 victory over the Norwegians in the tournament opener two weeks earlier.
The gold medal was a perfect finish for Coach Per-Mathias Hogmo, who is leaving the Norwegian women to become coach of Norway's men's U-21 team.
Milbrett gave the Yanks an early lead, knocking home a feed from Mia Hamm in the fifth minute, but Norway scored on headers by Gro Espeseth just before halftime and Ragnhild Gulbrandsen in the 78th minute to surge ahead. Milbrett's second goal, a header from a looping Mia Hamm cross two minutes into stoppage time, came at the last possible moment. Referee Sonia Denoncourt whistled play dead on the ensuing kickoff.
"It was such a tough game," said Espeseth, who teamed with captain Goril Kringen and goalkeeper Bente Nordby to lead a superb Norwegian defense. "When the U.S. team scored early, I thought, 'Oh, no, not again. Why should they win again and again and again.'
"But we played better soccer, scored some goals, and then there was the terrible moment when Tiffy scored with only seconds left. Then it was a magic moment -- that's all I can say."
The Norwegians required sensational goal-saving plays by Kringen, who dived to head a Kristine Lilly shot off her goal line in the 60th minute, and by Nordby, who leapt to knock away a brilliant 25-yarder by Hamm headed for the upper-left corner in the 71st.
Mellgren's winner, in the 102nd minute, wasn't without controversy. The play began from a speculative long ball by playmaker Hege Riise toward the U.S. box. Defender Joy Fawcett got her head to it, but it struck Mellgren -- racing into the box, between Fawcett and Kate Sobrero -- on her left arm and fell to her feet as she sped past the defenders.
Mullinix got her hand to Mellgren's shot but couldn't keep it out of the net.
U.S. captain Julie Foudy reported afterward that Denoncourt said she thought the ball had hit Mellgren in the chest.
It was neither a deliberate nor flagrant hand ball, and if some referees would have penalized the Norwegian forward, others certainly would have allowed the goal to stand.
The Americans dictated the match most of the first half, taking advantage of the space Norway provided by playing a graceful possession game. It led to Milbrett's fifth-minute goal, but the Norwegian defense tightened soon after and the U.S. dominance didn't lead to many chances.
Hamm, playing her best match of the tournament, was responsible for the goal. She took a pass from Foudy at the edge of the box, held off Kringen as she turned the left corner, then dropped the ball back to Milbrett as she arrived at the 6-yard box. Milbrett left-footed the feed home from about 8 yards.
Norway evened things in the 44th minute. Riise's corner kick from the right found Espeseth charging toward the near post, and the defender outjumped Kate Sobrero and headed it forcefully toward the far post. Shannon MacMillan, on the goal line, tried to stop it with a backheel but had no chance for success.
Norway had begun imposing its style on the game 10 minutes earlier, when Hogmo pulled off Solveig Gulbrandsen for Unni Lehn and switched from a 4-4-2 formation to a 4-5-1. By applying heavier pressure in midfield and limiting space in which the Americans could operate, they began controlling the game's tempo and were the better side from that point on, especially in the second half.
An error in judgment by goalkeeper Siri Mullinix helped Norway take the lead in the 78th minute. Lehn sent a cross into the box for Ragnhild Gulbrandsen, who faced a duel with Fawcett for the ball. Mullinix, who loves to come off her line and take risks, raced toward the ball and jumped over Fawcett in an attempt to punch it away. Fawcett went down, and Gulbrandsen got her head to the ball, which bounced into the empty net.
Norway tried, with success, to protect its lead from that point, but the Americans forced overtime with Milbrett's sensational header in stoppage time. With the Yanks throwing everything into attack, Fawcett -- on the right flank -- sent a ball to Cindy Parlow near the box. Parlow headed it out wide to Hamm on the right, and the 5-foot-2 Milbrett outjumped Kringen to get to the soaring cross, nodding the ball inside the far post.
It set off a joyous celebration within the U.S. camp, but Mellgren's finish 12 minutes later left the Americans in tears.
Norway adds the gold medal to its WWC title, won in Sweden in 1995, and improves its record against the United States to 15-13-2. It is the only nation with a winning mark against the Yanks.
In the bronze-medal match:
Germany 2 Brazil 0: Renate Lingor and Birgit Prinz netted second-half goals as the Germans overcame an early Brazilian offensive to claim the bronze medal in the first game of Thursday's doubleheader.
Lingor bent home a free kick into the upper-left corner from 21 yards to break the deadlock in the 64th minute, and Prinz finished from a marvelous long ball by Bettina Wiegmann in the 79th as Germany beat Brazil for the second time in the tournament.
Brazil was the better team most of the first half but managed few chances against a solid German back line led by Doris Fitschen and Steffi Jones. Germany took charge as the South Americans grew weary in the second half, but Brazil created its two best chances after Lingor's free kick.
Both belonged to Pretinha, who saw her 64th-minute blast from 17 yards pushed wide of the right post by German goalkeeper Silke Rottenberg, then mishit a shot at an open net after darting past Rottenberg from a fine Maicon feed.
THE U.S. MEN will be underdogs when they take on Chile in the bronze-medal match Friday night at the Sydney Football Stadium. The Americans, whose inspiring run through the competition was halted by Spain in a semifinal loss on Tuesday are seeking the country's first Olympic medal in men's soccer.
Forward Josh Wolff and midfielder John O'Brien have been the key players for the Yanks, who ran out of gas against the impressive Spaniards after strong showings in group matches against the Czech Republic, Cameroon and Kuwait and in a quarterfinal against Japan, won on penalty kicks after 120 minutes.
The Chileans' hopes for gold were dashed in the semifinals by Cameroon, which overcame a deficit with goals in the 84th and 89th minutes, the first by Parma's Patrick Mboma and the second a penalty kick by Arsenal's Lauren Etame Mayer. Until the 2-1 loss, Chile had been the strongest team in the tournament, with forwards Ivan Zamorano and Reinaldo Navia the most potent strike force.
AC Milan's Jose Mari set up two goals and scored a third to lead the Spaniards to a 3-1 win over the Americans and into Saturday afternoon's final at Stadium Australia, the chief Olympic venue at Homebush in Sydney. Spain is seeking its second gold medal -- it won at Barcelona in 1992 -- and Cameroon is trying to become the second successive African nation to win, following Nigeria at the Atlanta Games in 1996.
U.S. GAME SUMMARY -- THURSDAY, SEPT. 28 AT THE SYDNEY FOOTBALL STADIUM
USA 2 Norway 3 (OT). Goals: Milbrett 5, 92+; Espeseth 44, R. Gulbrandsen 78, Mellgren 102.
USA -- Mullinix; Pearce, Fawcett, Sobrero, Chastain; MacMillan (Parlow, 69), Fair, Foudy, Lilly; Hamm, Milbrett.
Norway -- Nordby; Jorgensen, Kringen, Espeseth, Sandaune; S. Gulbrandsen (Lehn, 34), Riise, Knudsen (Boe Jensen, 91), Haugenes; R. Gulbrandsen, Pettersen (Mellgren, 83).
Yellow cards -- Espeseth 76, Lehn 84, Kringen 91+.
Referee -- Sonia Denoncourt (Canada). Att. -- 22,848.
Germany 2 Brazil 0. Goals: Lingor 64, Prinz 79.
Olympic medalists, women's soccer
Gold: United States
Silver: United States
Friday at the Sydney Football Stadium
Bronze: United States vs. Chile
Saturday at Stadium Australia, Homebush
Gold: Cameroon vs. Spain
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