The fragile emotions inside the world's greatest female soccer player came forth in an unusual and touching moment Saturday night. Mia Hamm scored a goal, then immediately ran to the bench and hugged coach April Heinrichs.
"Thanks for not giving up on me," Hamm said.
"I'll never give up on you," Heinrichs replied.
Hamm extended her world scoring record with her 121st international goal in the 65th minute, an 18-yard blast off goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc's outstretched hands, as the United States beat Canada 4-1 in the semifinals of the Gold Cup.
The Americans will play Brazil in Monday's title game in Foxboro, Mass., a rematch of the teams that played to a 0-0 tie in group play Wednesday. Brazil beat China 3-2 in Saturday's other semifinal.
Shannon MacMillan, starting at forward for the first time this year, scored from 16 and 25 yards out, shots so powerful the goalkeeper just stood and watched them fly past, as the Americans beat their North American neighbors for the 21st consecutive time.
MacMillan scored in the 12th and 38th minutes. Tiffany Milbrett added a goal in first-half injury time for the Americans, who have won 22 of 23 games against Canada.
But Hamm's hug stole the show. The game's most recognizable name suffered through a scoring drought earlier this year after Heinrichs became coach, even though she is still the most feared striker in the world and receives more than her share of attention from defenders.
"I've been struggling for a long time," Hamm said. "I have expectations to score. People have expectations for me to score."
Heinrichs said Hamm was feeling the pressure of constantly living up to expectations. The U.S. team was on top of the world after winning the World Cup last year, but a players' strike in the winter and preparations for the upcoming Olympics have given the players a limited time to bask in the glow.
"The hardest thing is there are lot of people tugging us right now," captain Julie Foudy said. "The real challenge is to keep the main thing the main thing, and that's to be prepared for Sydney."
Charmaine Hooper scored a penalty kick in the 58th minute for the Canadians, whose only victory against the Americans came in 1986.
Despite that record and despite 4-0 and 9-1 losses to the United States this year Canada's players had thought themselves ready to challenge the world champions this time. The Canadians split two games with China this year under new coach Even Pellerud's rebuilding program.
"The attitude of the team before the game was that it was possible to beat them, but we suffered from a poor start," said Pellerud, who used three forwards in the first half in a failed attempt to put more pressure on the American defenders.
But, once again, Canada's defense couldn't stop the Americans' powerful array of talent. The United States had three corner kicks in te first three minutes, and Milbrett was given plenty of space down the middle of the field for her goal, a 10-yard score on a feed from Foudy.
MacMillan's first goal, a rocket into the corner of the net, came after a cross-field pass from Nikki Serlenga on a counterattack. MacMillan's second found the left side, a solid blast from directly in front of the net with three players around her. Although both shots were long ones, LeBlanc was left flat-footed with no time to react.
"Shannon's goal in life, aside from winning soccer games, is to rip the skin off the ball every time she kicks it," Heinrichs said. "She's got this inner anger with the ball, and she absolutely ripped the stitching, the logo and the coloring off of both of those balls."
Canada avoided the shutout when Kate Sobrero elbowed Hooper to the left of the goal in the second half. Hooper's successful penalty kick broke a 486-minute shutout streak for the United States and ended goalkeeper Siri Mullinix's personal streak at 512 minutes.
The game drew 11,140 fans to Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
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