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USA Proud Of World Cup Women

Get ready for a generation of girls named Mia. And Briana, Tiffeny, Tisha, Shannon and above all others, Brandi.

The Women's World Cup ended Saturday the best way it could, with a United States victory over China secured by Brandi Chastain, a 31-year-old, free-spirited Californian who posed for a magazine last month wearing nothing but a soccer ball and dared anyone to suggest beauty, brains and athletic ability couldn't be bundled in one package.

And then, the second after Chastain's winning shot ricocheted off the left side netting and rattled around the back of the goal, she proved just how different your daughter's role models are from your mother's.

She stripped to her black sports bra, dropped to her knees at the penalty spot and let loose the scream of a lifetime.

"Momentary insanity," Chastain said, apologizing for none of it. "That's what it was nothing more, nothing less."

The same could be said for this tournament. For nearly a month, America was deeply and inexplicably mad for a sport and a bunch of athletes most folks barely knew existed when this wondrous summer began.

By the end of the 32-game tournament, the intricacies of soccer remained a mystery to many including the penalty-kick shootout that decided the game following 90 minutes of regulation and two 15-minute overtime periods.

But the same can't be said about the 20 women who filled out the U.S. roster in April and set out to reclaim the World Cup trophy hoisted by the Norwegians four years ago.

No group of athletes was more accessible, more articulate or down-to-earth than this one. None loved its work more or communicated that feeling better. And not since another celebrated collection of amateurs pulled off the "Miracle on Ice" at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics has a troupe of athletes been loved so much in return.

"It's been incredible, this ride we've been on," goalkeeper Briana Scurry said. "It's great to see your country getting behind you."

For much of the afternoon, though, most of their countrymen looked on with their hearts stuck in their throats. China is a familiar, formidable foe, one of the few countries on a par with the United States in terms of providing athletic opportunities for women.

These teams were the finalists for the Olympic gold medal at Atlanta in 1996 decided by a late goal from Tiffeny Milbrett and the Chinese had won two of three meetings with the Americans this year. All four games ended with 2-1 scores.

And the longer this one went on, the less there seemed to be separating them.

The Americans had the better of the play in the first half and the second overtime. The Chinese dictated matters in the second half and the first overtime, including the best chance of the game, when Fan Yunjie's header off a corner kick was headed back off the goal line by Kristine Lilly.

What all that ebb and flow yielded n the end was the shootout, which is the soccer equivalent of deciding Game 7 of the NBA Finals with a free-throw shooting contest.

Both sides had practiced for just such an ending, but U.S. coach Tony DiCicco saw a huge hole when he set out to select his five shooters. Michelle Akers, the 33-year-old grande dame of the American team and its best penalty kicker, was not available. She had been substituted as regulation expired after suffering heat exhaustion.

Staring at his roster, DiCicco knew the stories behind each name by heart. There were stories about sacrifices made and redemption sought. What he needed to know, ultimately, was who wanted the pressure and who didn't.

DiCicco settled on this order: First, captain Carla Overbeck, the original soccer mom, followed by Joy Fawcett, also 31, also a defender, and the team's only other parent.

Then came Kristine Lilly, the North Carolina graduate who was so unnerved by the prospect of speaking before basketball coach Dean Smith at an alumni dinner that she fainted dead away on the podium. Fourth was Mia Hamm, the reluctant star, who has shoes, a Barbie doll and a building at Nike's national headquarters named after her, but a limited supply of confidence.

And last was the irrepressible Chastain, DiCicco's riskiest call of all.

Chastain began her U.S. team stint as an irrepressible forward in 1991, dropped out of the picture until the Olympics and then was asked by DiCicco to change her game around entirely and become a defender. When the U.S. met China this past March, in the final of the Algarve Cup in Portugal, Chastain took a penalty kick with her right foot and missed.

When DiCicco called her name again this time, she felt a surprising calm. She didn't dare look at Chinese goalkeeper Gao Hong, whose smile had unnerved her the last time they stared down one another in the same situation.

"As soon as the whistle blew, I just stepped up and hit it," Chastain said.

A left-footed rocket rippled the side netting, the fifth of five American attempts. Goalkeeper Briana Scurry made it stand up by stopping one of China's five shots. A second after Chastain scored, she disappeared beneath an avalanche of joy and affection.

"I thought," she recalled, " My God, this is the greatest moment of my life on a soccer field."

She wasn't the only one who had that feeling.

©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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