Remember When? USWNT's silver medal in 2000 - its only Olympic failure yet

ISI Photos-Brett Whitesell

Only once in Olympic soccer history have the U.S. women failed to win gold. Scott French, who was with the team in Sydney, looks back:

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The long, golden road the United States has traveled across five Olympiads is among the most impressive feats in our sports’ history, with four championships starting with the inaugural women's soccer competition at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Should the Americans conquer the field this month in Brazil, the U.S. would claim an unprecedented third straight major women's title and become the first team to follow a World Cup title with the Olympic crown.

Only once have the U.S. women failed in their quest for gold, settling for silver medals in 2000 when Dagny Mellgren's controversial sudden-death strike lifted Norway to a 3-2 triumph at the Sydney Football Stadium.

It seemed a stunning defeat for the U.S., coming in the wake of the 1999 World Cup triumph that so electrified the nation, but things had changed since the previous summer, and the Sydney Olympics suggested the sport's landscape was rapidly evolving.

Germany, which would win the next two World Cups, was the best team on form but dropped a semifinal decision to the Norwegians and won bronze. Brazil's growing maturity was as apparent in its play -- stylish but brutish -- as in its march to the semifinals, where it got the better of the U.S. everywhere but the scoreboard. And Nigeria's physical dimensions and aggressive, sometimes abusive manner offered a glimpse into the future of the women's game.

The U.S. was in transition. April Heinrichs, who captained the 1991 team to the title in the first Women's World Championship, as it was then known, had succeeded Tony DiCicco as head coach in February. She swapped the team’s traditional 4-3-3 alignment for a 4-4-2 that bolstered defensive organization and gave Shannon MacMillan a role on the right flank.

Captain Carla Overbeck, who would retire following the Olympics, was recovering from knee surgery, so Joy Fawcett moved inside next to Kate Sobrero. Future captain Christie Pearce (Rampone) took the spot on the right. Briana Scurry had dealt with injury and fitness issues following the '99 win, so Siri Mullinix displaced her as the No. 1 goalkeeper. And a shoulder injury, on top of chronic fatigue syndrome, had forced Michelle Akers off the field, with Julie Foudy taking on the holding midfielder role (and playing the best soccer of her career) and Lorrie Fair partnering her in the middle.

There were a lot of questions heading to Australia -- about the challenges Akers' absence might present, Mullinix's risky style, Mia Hamm and Tiffeny Milbrett's partnership in a two-front -- and a savage draw ensured that one among the big three – the U.S., Norway and China -- would not make it to the knockout phase.

Heinrichs' team appeared to eliminate all doubt in their first two Group F clashes, in Melbourne against Norway and China. Milbrett was unstoppable in the opener against Norway, netting the first of the team’s two first-half goals before hitting both posts and the crossbar. She led a dominant U.S. performance that Heinrichs called “the best performance against the best opponent in the first round of any major world championship.” It was 2-0, but it could have been 8-0.

The U.S. was very fine against China, which took an uncharacteristically direct approach that withered as Fawcett, Sobrero and Pearce handled every ball over the top. The U.S., despite 18 shots, 13 of them on frame, wasn't much more dangerous but got the only goal it seemed to need when Foudy headed home a MacMillan corner kick late in the first half.

Then Heinrichs made a curious change, pulling left back Brandi Chastain for striker Cindy Parlow. The idea was that Parlow's presence would inhibit the Chinese wing backs from sending the long balls that weren't bothering the U.S. backline, but China quickly changed tactics and started surging forward as new space opened. Five minutes after the move, Sun Wen -- at that moment considered the world's best player -- delivered a magnificent free kick (after an iffy hand-ball call on Hamm), and the teams shared the points. China celebrated the 1-1 draw as if it were a victory.

The rest of the tournament was something of a grind for the United States. Nigeria's superior speed, athleticism and aggressiveness in the group finale greatly bothered the Americans, who were never in danger of losing after a sharp MacMillan restored a two-goal lead early in the second half. Still, Nigeria revealed some of the U.S.’ shortcomings, foremost among them: Akers' absence greatly diminished the team’s intimidation factor.

The 3-1 win was enough for the group title, and the U.S. sneaked past Brazil in the semifinal on Hamm's 60th-minute volley in Canberra. Sissi and Co. were the better side, and the Brazilians' physical play, mirroring Nigeria's, caused the U.S. problems. They owned midfield but created just one legitimate scoring chance in a 1-0 decision.

That brought the U.S. to Sydney for a rematch with Norway, but the gold-medal clash would have little in common with the opener. The U.S. was bright in the first half, took an early lead when Milbrett finished from a striking Hamm run and appeared to be in command as halftime neared.

Then Per-Mathias Hogmo brought Unni Lehn on for Solveig Gulbrandsen, changed from a 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1, and the Norwegians took control in midfield. They got two big defensive plays -- captain Goril Kringen leaping to head a Lilly rebound off the goal line and goalkeeper Bente Nordby diving to parry a Hamm rocket toward the upper-left corner -- and used the long ball to rally on headers by Gro Espeseth just before halftime and Ragnhild Gulbrandsen in the 78th minute.

Mullinix was a keeper who believed all balls in her box belonged to her, and she rarely hesitated to come off her line, even when reason argued otherwise. She could have done better on Espeseth's equalizer, and Gulbrandsen's would-be winner was all on her.

Fawcett had Gulbrandsen covered, but Mullinix raced toward them as the cross came into the U.S. box and slammed into Fawcett, knocking her to the ground. Gulbrandsen simply nodded the ball into the open net. “That's my style,” Mullinix said afterward. “I'm not going to not play my style.”

Milbrett got the equalizer with virtually the last touch of regulation. The sprite forward, just 5-foot-2, rose above Kringen to head home a Hamm cross, and off to overtime they went.

The Norwegians had the gold medal 12 minutes later. A Fawcett clearance slammed into Mellgren's arm and into her path, leaving her a simple one-on-one finish against Mullinix. Foudy, wearing the armband with Overbeck on the bench, asked Sonia Denoncourt about Mellgren handling the ball, and she reported that the Canadian referee responded, “Don't do this to me, Jules.”

Denoncourt apparently hadn't seen it, and had she, she still might not have made the call. The hand ball hadn't been intentional, but it had given an advantage to Mellgren, who would star in the upcoming Women's United Soccer Association.

The physical nature of the encounters with Nigeria and Brazil as well as Heinrichs' substitution patterns -- she started the same XI every game and used just 13 of the 18 players on her roster -- had taken a toll on the U.S. The team didn't have the energy required down the stretch.

“Our team probably lost a little bit of our legs in the second half,” Milbrett confirmed. “And when we really needed to turn it up, we couldn't.”

The silver might have been a disappointment, but the U.S. accepted second place with grace.

“It wasn't storybook,” Heinrichs said. “Ninety-nine was the storybook year.”

Chastain offered a unique perspective.

“My feeling is that I love my teammates, and I'm just so happy with how hard we've worked, how much effort we've put into everything, and it paid off,” she said as she caressed her silver medal. “We're the only 18 people in the world to wear this around our neck. How can you be unsatisfied with that? I'm disappointed, yes, but I don't have that emptiness. ...

"I think everybody wants to be the winner -- wouldn't you agree?  So many things that go along with playing in that game are more important than wearing the gold medal. It's about the relentlessness, it's about the heart, it's about not giving up. We had all those things. I mean, Joy heads a ball, it bounces off the girl and goes into the net. How can you predict that? You can't.”

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Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench