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ON SOCCER

Without Norwegians, it just won't be the same

FOXBOROUGH -- They didn't realize they'd hit the daily double until someone told them. "Are you sure about that?" coach April Heinrichs asked last night, after the US women's soccer team had knocked the Norwegians out of both the World Cup and the Olympics with one swift kick. "Wow! Are you sure?"

Sure enough. Only the top two European teams in this tournament get tickets to Athens. Since Sweden was already through to the semifinals and Germany or Russia will be tonight, the Norwegians were out of the Games as soon as the US beat them, 1-0, in their quarterfinal.

Not that the Americans were exulting about it. Quite the opposite, in fact. "I actually think that's a shame," forward Tiffeny Milbrett said. "Norway is an incredible team. They deserve to be in the Olympics."

They've been knocking heads for so long, these old rivals, that they can't imagine playing a global tournament without meeting each other. In fact, it's happened only once, when the Chinese blasted the Norwegians out of the 1999 Cup semifinals here.

When the Americans won the 1991 Cup, they beat Norway in the final. In 1995, Norway knocked out the US in the semis. In the 1996 Olympics, the US beat the Norwegians in overtime in the semis. In 2000 in Sydney, they met twice, with Norway winning the final in overtime.

"It's a great rivalry," said Heinrichs, who was in on it at the beginning 16 years ago. "I'm certainly well aware of the history going back to the mid-'80s."

What we've seen this year, though, and saw again last night, is a rivalry that decidedly has turned in the Americans' favor. Four straight they've won from the Norwegians now, outscoring their archrivals, 9-1. And last night's decision was the most lopsided 1-0 victory you'll ever see.

If Norwegian goalkeeper Bente Nordby hadn't made two spectacular saves in the 68th minute -- on Mia Hamm's penalty kick and Cindy Parlow's point-blank header -- this would have been a 3-0 knockout.

The US outshot Norway, 14-3 (7-1 on goal), with an 8-2 edge on corner kicks. The Americans ran at and around the Norwegians all night, chased them down and cut them off when they ventured forward, and banged them around both on the ground and in the air.

"The US team was better than the Norwegian team today," conceded coach Age Steen, whose team didn't manage a shot on goal until the 77th minute. "And we are out of the World Cup and out of the Olympics, too."

The world of women's soccer has changed markedly since Brandi Chastain became the sports-bra poster girl four years ago. The Chinese aren't the best team in Asia anymore. The North Koreans are. And the Norwegians are only the third-best team in Europe now, behind the Germans (whom the US likely will meet in Sunday's semifinal) and Swedes.

The one constant, since global competition began a dozen years ago, has been the Americans, who have never missed the medal stand at three Cups and two Olympics and are in prime position to win again. "I think the US is the big favorite to win the World Cup," reckoned Steen.

Playing at home -- as the Americans have three times out of six -- is an undeniable advantage. But the reason they've been winning is because they can put 20 world-class players on the field with at least another 10 in reserve. Nobody else on earth can do that.

It's not just their golden oldies, the Hamms and Fawcetts and Foudys and Lillys who are playing their fourth Cup with the same passion they had as teenagers. It's the Wambachs and Reddicks and Boxxes, who stepped in with minimal international experience and have stepped up with a cool-hand poise and a head-knocking verve.

Reddick, the squad's only collegian (will that Carolina pipeline ever end?) came in for the injured Chastain and has been both a bruising presence on the back line and a huge offensive weapon. Boxx, who'd never played an international match until last month, has now started three in the Cup.

And Wambach, who had only eight caps when the year began, was the best player on the field by a mile. She was everywhere, hurling herself at every ball, crashing through the Norwegian underbrush like a moose run amok.

It was Wambach who scored the game's only goal in the 24th minute on a header off a long Reddick free kick. It was Wambach who was tripped up by Nordby as she came rampaging into the area, setting up Hamm's PK. "We tried to take her out in the box, like ice hockey," said Steen. "But it is very difficult to stop her."

Wambach and her teammates are under full steam now, into the final four and presumably another showdown with the Germans, who gave them fits in the 1999 quarterfinals. For all their history, for all the bygone battles, the Norwegians were just another roadblock. "We want to get to the finals," said Milbrett. "This is just another team we had to get past."

Not that it wasn't satisfying for the Americans to take out the people who've handed them their only two losses in six global tournaments. Not that it wasn't sweet to take them out of the next one, too. But Olympus is next year and the US hasn't even begun qualifying. "That is a long time away," Heinrichs said. "I can't even think past two days from now."

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