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The United States won another gold medal last night, but the
real winner of the soccer match at Sanford Stadium in Athens,
Ga., might have been the next generation of American female

Before 76,481, the biggest crowd ever to watch a women's soccer
match, Shannon MacMillan and Tiffeny Milbrett, former teammates
at the University of Portland, each scored a goal to give the
United States a 2-1 victory over China and the first Olympic
gold medal ever awarded in the event. MacMillan put the U.S.
ahead 1-0 in the first half, and Milbrett broke a 1-1 tie in the

With the U.S. softball team having won a gold medal on Tuesday,
the soccer team's victory gave the U.S. the second leg of a
possible Olympic triple crown in the major American women's
sports. The U.S. women's basketball team needs a win in today's
semifinals and a victory in Sunday's final to finish it off. "We
made a great statement for women and for women's soccer in this
stadium tonight," MacMillan said afterward. "We had 75,000
paying to watch women's soccer. When I was growing up--and that
was just a few years ago--we never had anything like this."

The gold medal clincher came in the 68th minute, when Milbrett
took a perfect cross from defender Joy Fawcett. From five yards
out, Milbrett split two defenders and sent a hard shot to the
right of Chinese goalie Gao Hong, who dived for the ball but
could only touch it with the fingertips of her right hand.

This team will scatter around the world now, with strikers
Milbrett and MacMillan heading to Japan to play professionally,
several others bound for college coaching jobs and still others
retiring from the sport. But they all leave these Games as one
of the most underappreciated American amateur teams of all time,
with a 1991 World Cup title, an unbeaten record in the
qualifying tournament for the 1995 World Cup and, now, the
Olympic gold medal.

And what a way to go out. The atmosphere in Sanford
Stadium--filled with a sea of red-white-and-blue-clad fans, who
had paid as much as $133 a seat--was every bit as frenzied as it
would be on a chilly fall evening for a Georgia-Alabama football
game. "We know," U.S. captain Carla Overbeck said before the
game, "that we have to be ready to play the game of our lives.
The crowd will definitely help."

The stadium was only half-filled at the start of the bronze
medal game (Norway 2, Brazil 0), during which the three U.S.
team vans made their way from the university dormitory to the
stadium. Inside the middle van, MacMillan tuned out the world
with her Walkman. Only when the security officer in the front
seat asked for her autograph was her concentration broken, and
then just momentarily. Her focus stood her in good stead when
the game got going.

In the 18th minute of the first half, Kristine Lilly lifted a
cross from the deep left corner toward the penalty area. Mia
Hamm, marked by three defenders, rushed toward the ball, and as
she slid to kick it toward the goal, Gao dived to her right. It
didn't matter, because the ball hit the right goalpost,
ricocheting straight to MacMillan, who was four yards from the
goal line. She settled it, then fooled Gao, who moved to the
right. MacMillan kicked the ball left, a low chopper past Gao.
When the ball settled against the back of the net, MacMillan
sprinted, openmouthed and wide-eyed, 30 yards from the goal and
dived headfirst, like Kenny Lofton stealing second. In an
instant, a half-dozen of her teammates had piled on.

Eight minutes later the Americans missed a chance to put the
game away. Hamm, the marvelous striker from North Carolina,
eluded three defenders and found herself alone for half a
second, 15 yards from Gao. Soccer games are won and lost in just
such moments, but this time, when Hamm shuffled her feet and
kicked as hard as she could with her right, the ball landed in
Gao's gut. So much for a rout.

Eight minutes later, in the 32nd minute, China got even. Striker
Sun Wen maneuvered past Overbeck and came nearly face-to-face
with goalie Briana Scurry, 15 feet from the goal. Sun realized
that she had two choices: She could either try to line the ball
to one side of Scurry or try to loft a Texas leaguer over the
goalie's head. Sun made the right choice, and the pop-up bounced
the final yards into the middle of the goal.

If that goal deflated the Americans, Milbrett soon enough lifted
their spirits with her perfect placement of Fawcett's pass.
Sanford Stadium--fans both male and female--erupted in
celebration. But in the quiet that came after the game had
ended, Hamm struggled for words as she blinked back tears. "What
we said tonight," she said, "is that anyone, man or woman, can
go out there on the field and put their heart into something."

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO There was no stopping Milbrett, who had the winning goal, no matter what tactic Shui Qingxia (8) tried. [Shui Qingxia and Tiffeny Milbrett in game]