The U.S. women's soccer team paraded out of the Florida Citrus Bowl with a banner that read, "Thank You Orlando!"
It left triumphantly, raucously, reluctantly and, ominously, without star striker Mia Hamm.
Never mind the rain that fell during Tuesday night's game before 22,734. The lone dark cloud left hanging after the United States' 2-1 victory over Sweden was the left ankle Hamm twisted in the 83rd minute, forcing her out of the game and the U.S. to consider the rest of the Olympics without her.
Hamm's may be a household name only in soccer households, but her exit from the American soccer stage is akin to Michael Jordan hobbling off the court for the Chicago Bulls.
First, the encouraging news: X-rays on Hamm's ankle were negative. Also, the U.S. victory, coupled with China's 2-1 win over Denmark, qualified the American and Chinese teams for the medal round, rendering Thursday night's Group E finale between the countries in Miami inconsequential except for the jockeying as the teams ponder a medal-round rematch.
If U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco decides to rest Hamm against China, she would have four days to recover before the semifinal game in Athens, Ga., Sunday.
"I'd like to keep the starting lineup that's winning," DiCicco said. "But if a player needs a rest, I'll give them one."
Tagged with the label of "world's best player," she might as well be wearing a bull's-eye on her jersey. The defensive tactics of Sweden, as with Denmark, were as subtle as a sledgehammer. Both teams rocked and rolled her. Denmark fouled her four times, Sweden five.
Hamm was injured when she collided with goalkeeper Annelie Nilsson as Hamm tried to head a corner kick. Hamm and Nilsson exchange words near the goal mouth.
"I don't know what happened," Nilsson said of the play later. "I hope she is well and plays the next game."
Hamm was unavailable for comment.
Unlike Sunday's cruise-control victory over Denmark, the U.S. struggled against Sweden in a performance that was, paradoxically, both dominant and frustrating.
The U.S. outshot the Swedes, 22-4, and controlled play throughout, but missed half a dozen choice scoring opportunities that might have allowed Hamm to be resting on the bench in the 83rd minute instead of taking on the Swedish goalkeeper in a one-goal game.
Worse, the lone Swedish goal, in the 64th minute, was accidentally deflected in by American defender Carla Overbeck as she tried to stop a Swedish free kick.
Overbeck was forgiven--this, after all, isn't Colombia--but the mistake was costly, occurring two minutes after the U.S. had taken a 2-0 lead on a heads-up play by midfielder Shannon MacMillan, who recovered a loose ball in front of goal and blasted it past Nilsson.
It looked like Denmark all over again. And, just as in Sunday's game, Tisha Venturini scored first again for the U.S., this time on a header in the 15th minute. It was Venturini's fifth goal in her last six games--all first goals.
"I should have had four goals but I was lucky to get one," she said afterward.
But the "own goal" changed everything. Sweden, facing elimination, thwarted one U.S. attack after another. The pressure mounted. Michelle Akers just missed on a header in the 69th minute. Two minutes later, seconds apart, Kristine Lilly and Venturini missed on good chances.
The U.S. was getting chances because the Swedes were circling Hamm.
"One way to stop the fast players is to be tight on them," Swedish Coach Bengt Simonson said of the strategy against Hamm.
"Tight" here being the euphemism for knocking Hamm down.
Even Hamm's own teammates concede it's the only way to stop her.
"Oh, yeah, absolutely," defender Brandi Chastain said.
DiCicco wonders if the play hasn't gotten too rough.
"When you play rough and don't get yellow cards (Sweden, in fact, was called for two), you continue with that tactic until it's stopped," DiCicco said.
Can the U.S. go on without Hamm? Does it have any choice?
"Mia's an impact player," Chastain said. "You could be blind and know that. She puts fear in the other team. Any game without her is not a good game."