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U.S. Pulls Out All the Stops and Earns a Berth in Final

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Long before the Women’s World Cup began, this much was common knowledge among soccer fans: The United States would advance in the tournament only as far as Michelle Akers could carry it.

Sunday, in front of a festive and sunbaked crowd of 73,123 at Stanford Stadium, the veteran midfielder carried her country all the way to Saturday’s championship game at the Rose Bowl, where China awaits.

Akers was nothing less than inspirational. Her courageous defensive play in midfield was a key to the U.S. success, and it was only fitting that she scored the critical second goal in a 2-0 semifinal victory over Brazil.

Goalkeeper Briana Scurry was every bit as good. In a second half in which the Brazilians stepped up their offense and peppered the U.S. net with shots, the goalkeeper made one stupendous save after another and shut out the South American champions.

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Her teammates could not praise both highly enough, especially Akers.

“Michelle’s amazing,” said forward Cindy Parlow, who scored the first U.S. goal. “She’s such a presence on the field for us. I can’t say enough about the way she played today. She was such a force. You couldn’t take the ball away from her. She was all over the field.”

“She’s tremendous,” defender Joy Fawcett said. “She’s just got so much desire and heart. She lays it out there every time she plays. I wish I could do that.”

“She’s a hero of mine,” Mia Hamm said. “We were walking off the field and I kept saying, ‘I’m so glad you play for the USA.’ It’s an honor to play alongside her. She’s a warrior.”

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Akers twice was injured during the game, but both times she got back up and renewed the fight.

“I think maybe you get to the point where you’re so beat up, another little ding is not going to stop you,” she said, laughing. “I’ve learned to play through pain and with a chronic illness now for a long time, so I just kind of put it behind me and get on with the job at hand.”

The U.S. came out prepared to carry the fight to the Brazilians and grabbed the lead in the fifth minute when Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy and Parlow combined to pry open the Brazilian defense.

The goal was more due to an error by Brazilian goalkeeper Maravilha and some opportunism by Parlow, however, than by any especially creative play.

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With the fans still settling in their seats, Chastain, playing in her 100th international game, passed the ball to Foudy down the left flank. Foudy floated a deep cross into the goalmouth and Maravilha leaped to catch the ball.

To her horror, it slipped from her fingertips and Parlow, rushing in, headed it into the back of the open net for her second goal of the tournament.

“I could see that she [Maravilha] was going to have difficulty getting to it,” Parlow said. “I was very fortunate that she dropped it.”

That firecracker start promised much, but the rest of the first half provided little. The only player who stood out was Akers, who was tireless, despite twice being hammered to the ground.

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The first time occurred in the 25th minute when she clashed heads with Brazilian forward Katia da Silva. Both players were shaken but needed only brief treatment before continuing.

“I had my bell rung,” Akers said. “I was a little bit wobbly, but I had the time to take a couple of breaths and gather myself and get some water in me and I was ready to rock.”

The second occasion looked more serious. It came in the 41st minute when Akers bent low to head the ball at midfield at the same time that Sissi, the tournament’s leading goal scorer, stuck out a leg to reach the ball.

The Brazilian’s boot met the American’s face and Akers, who had her cheekbone crushed in a game collision as recently as Feb. 14, crumpled to the turf. Again, however, she required only a minute or two to recover and continue.

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“I can’t remember the play exactly, but it was a ball in the air,” she said. “I bent down to get it and her foot came and caught me in the face and on the hand, and I went down.”

The U.S. took a 1-0 lead into the locker room, but Brazil came out firing in the second 45 minutes and Scurry was forced to use every ounce of her athletic skill to keep them at bay.

She backpedaled furiously to tip a long-range shot from Nene over the bar. She flung herself down to palm away another shot by Pretinha. She smothered low line drives on the goal line. In short, she was unbeatable.

But it was Akers’ defensive play against Sissi, who had scored seven goals and assisted on five others in Brazil’s five previous games, that kept the Americans in control of the match.

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“I was determined not to let her score,” Akers said.

With the U.S. leading, 1-0, and the clock moving all too slowly for American fans, it was Hamm who finally ended the suspense by drawing a penalty kick in the 80th minute.

Sprinting into the penalty area, she was taken down by Brazil’s captain, Elane, and referee Katriina Elovirta of Finland immediately pointed to the 12-yard spot.

“The ball was played in by Kristine [Lilly],” Hamm said. “I thought I got a step on her [Elane] and the next thing I knew I was on the ground. So I really don’t know what happened.”

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Akers stepped up to take the kick, just as she had done in the U.S.-Norway semifinal in the 1996 Olympic Games.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, baby. Gimme that,’ ” Akers said. “Those are the moments you live for in this sport and at this level.

Seconds later, the ball was in the net and the U.S., ahead, 2-0, could breathe easy the rest of the way.

“That’s something I’ve been practicing every single day for the past couple of months,” Akers said. “So the only thing running through my mind was where to put it. Once I’d decided, it was just a matter of focusing on the ball and sticking it in the back of the net.”

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As for the knocks she took, Akers shrugged. Her head, she said, felt OK.

“It’s pretty much a dull ache right now,” she said. “I’ve got a nice little knot on the back of my head and I haven’t even looked at my face yet.”

Was it worth it? No question.

“This is what it’s all about, this day,” Akers said. “I mean, the battle of the game, the fact that there was a high cost to win, the feeling afterwards, the performance of the team and the unity, and then the final that’s approaching so quickly.

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“Every second, every drop of blood, every scrape, everything has been worth it . . . “

Akers paused, then continued.

” . . . up to this point.”

China awaits.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

FIFA WOMEN’S WORLD CUP USA 99

China: 5

Norway: 0

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The Chinese used their superior speed and the goal-scoring of Sun Wen and Liu Ailing to oust the defending champions and earn a trip to final. Page 8

CHAMPIONSHIP

United States vs. China

Where: Rose Bowl

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When: Saturday

Time: 1 p.m., Channel 7


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