The United States swept into the semifinals of the Olympic women's soccer tournament Friday night with a convincing 2-1 victory over Japan at Kaftanzoglio Stadium.
Less convincing were the explanations given for the legitimate, but controversial, winning goal by Abby Wambach in the 59th minute.It came off a free kick by Mia Hamm, who sent the ball in from the left flank.
The Japanese defenders moved forward on the kick to try to catch the Americans offside, and Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy and Wambach all were caught by the maneuver. Midfielder Shannon Boxx, however, timed her run better, controlling Hamm's free kick in front of Japanese goalkeeper Nozomi Yamago,. Boxx then passed the ball back to Wambach, who ran it into the empty net.
According to FIFA's new interpretation of the offside rule, players who are in a passive position and not interfering with the play -- in this case Lilly, Foudy and Wambach -- should not be ruled offside.
The rule was applied, the goal stood and the Americans advanced to Monday's semifinal against Germany at Heraklio, Crete.
The Germans struggled to win their quarterfinal against Nigeria, falling behind to a 49th-minute goal by Mercy Akide at Patras, but recovering to win on goals by Steffi Jones in the 76th minute and Conny Pohlers in the 81st.
The other semifinal, in Patras, will pit Brazil against Sweden. The Brazilians rolled over Mexico, 5-0, at Heraklio, where Cristiane and Formiga each scored twice and Marta once. Mexico striker Maribel Dominguez was ejected in the 85th minute when she received a second yellow card.
In Volos, the Swedes defeated Australia, 2-1, with Hanna Ljunberg and Sara Larsson scoring in the first half and Lisa De Vanna getting a late consolation goal for the Matildas.
But it was the U.S.-Japan match that had all the intrigue.
The surprise inclusion of defender Brandi Chastain in the U.S. starting lineup, after she had not played a minute in the previous three games, took second place to the bizarre circumstances surrounding the Americans' second goal, when there were four U.S. players going in unchallenged against goalkeeper Yamago.
Even the U.S. coaches and players were a bit surprised by it all.
"Offside is a gray area in the game of soccer," U.S. Coach April Heinrichs admitted.
"We had like four people who could have scored, which is unheard of," said goalkeeper Briana Scurry.
"I said, 'What are we all doing up here? There's no whites and there's a lot of us,'." Foudy joked of the white-clad but suddenly absent Japanese defenders. "There were like five of us. I was like, 'Whoa!'."
Explained Wambach: "Shannon stayed onside and she put all of us back onside. It was just a matter of her looking up and having that composure" to control the ball and not be flustered in front of the net. "She's the reason why we won this game."
Japan Coach Eiji Ueda, forced to act as his own interpreter because FIFA and Olympic organizers failed to provide a Japanese-to-English translator, was gracious in defeat and absolved his players of any blame for the winning goal.
"The second goal by the USA was my responsibility," he said, explaining that at training the day before the match he had instructed his team to play the offside trap in the second half against the U.S.
"So it was my responsibility," he said. "The players did their best."
As for whether Boxx was onside or offside, Ueda said he was not at the right angle to tell whether it was a good or bad call by lineswoman Ana Da Silva Oliveira of Brazil.
The U.S. took the lead in the 43rd minute on a fine individual effort by Kristine Lilly.
She beat two defenders and sprinted into the penalty area to the left of the net. Defender Hiromi Isozaki blocked Lilly's cross and the ball reached defender Homare Sawa, who took a swing at it but only half-connected as the ball popped into the air.
Yamago and U.S. midfielder Lindsay Tarpley, who started in place of Ali Wagner, went for the ball, which squirted free toward Lilly, who hit a right-footed shot into the back of the net.
It was her 97th goal in 280 international games and her second of the Olympics.
Japan tied it up three minutes into the second half when Emi Yamamoto's free kick from 25 yards out on the right bounced once in the box and past Scurry, who was screened by Sawa and U.S. defender Christie Rampone.