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U.S. Turns on Light

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nkiru Okosieme had a key role to play at a sold-out Soldier Field on Thursday night when the United States and Nigeria squared off in Women’s World Cup play.

She was the one who lit the fuse.

Okosieme stunned the U.S. with a goal after only 76 seconds, but the explosion came 17 minutes later when the U.S. started a scoring spree that shattered any illusions the Nigerians might have had about earning an upset.

Six goals in 23 minutes, including three within an astonishing four-minute spell, gave the Americans a 7-1 victory in front of a crowd of 65,080.

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The U.S. forwards, led by an inspired Mia Hamm, tore gaping holes in the Nigerian defense, making it a long and dismal night for goalkeeper Ann Chiejine.

And yet it had started out so well for the African champions.

A mix-up in the U.S. defense in the second minute presented Okosieme with a chance and she took full advantage, knocking in a goal off the left post after taking a pass from “Marvelous” Mercy Akide.

“I think it was just luck on their part, but maybe we weren’t awake enough quick enough,” U.S. defender Kate Sobrero said. “When that first goal went in, I was like, ‘Oh, man, we just made Bri [goalkeeper Briana Scurry] mad.’ ”

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She need not have worried. Scurry had little to do the rest of the match.

“It [the Nigerian goal] actually was a blessing in disguise for us because it really made us angry and really made us alert right away,” said Tiffeny Milbrett, who scored twice.

“It’s not the way we want to start a game, but there’s no panic in this team,” U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco said. “Certainly, we don’t want to do that again in this event, but if it happens we’re confident we can come back. I was incredibly proud of the team and the way they handled it. There was no panic. We just started playing soccer.”

That would be an understatement. Consider:

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* Pressure from Michelle Akers forced Nigeria’s Ifeanyichukwu Chiejene to deflect the ball into her own net in the 19th minute to tie the score.

* Hamm scored a superb goal 60 seconds later, taking a Kristine Lilly pass, sprinting into the penalty area and hitting a rising shot past the goalkeeper.

* Three minutes later, it was Milbrett’s turn to score off a Cindy Parlow pass.

* In the 32nd minute, Lilly found the net, dodging in front of a defender and goalkeeper Chiejine to head in a Hamm free kick.

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* Seven minutes later, Akers, who played superbly, headed in a cross by Julie Foudy to make it 5-1.

* Parlow closed out the first-half onslaught when Milbrett found Brandi Chastain with a cross, Chastain headed it back to Parlow and the forward from Memphis scored her first World Cup goal.

“We had a lot of good [scoring] chances and we put them away,” said Milbrett. “Today we were really sharp with our shooting.

Milbrett also praised Akers.

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“I think she played like a champion tonight,” she said.

“Hear, hear,” said Lilly.

Chiejine, Nigeria’s bandanna-wearing goalkeeper, was abandoned by her defense in the first half and was fuming about it afterward. Asked whether the sellout crowd had been a factor, she replied angrily:

“We have played in China in 1991, we saw crowds,” she said. “We have played in Sweden in 1995, we saw crowds. This is not our first time to see a crowd like this. I am saying we played against the crowd, against the U.S. and, of course, against the referee.”

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But it was her porous defense that angered Chiejine most, even though she said she was not shellshocked.

“I’m OK,” she said. “I don’t expect myself to concede seven goals. It’s too much. Even if the goalkeeper is good, if you don’t have very good defenders, there is nothing you can do. You can only try your best and leave the rest to God.

“I know most of the goals scored were not my fault. There was nothing I could do.”

The victory, while impressive, did not clinch the U.S. a place in the quarterfinals because of North Korea’ upset of Denmark in Portland. The U.S. plays North Korea in Foxboro, Mass., on Sunday.

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It did tie some records.

Sweden scored half a dozen goals in 45 minutes against Japan in an 8-0 victory at the inaugural Women’s World Championship in China in 1991.

That was also where the U.S. last scored seven goals in a world championship game, beating Chinese Taipei, 7-0, on a night when Akers scored five goals.

She wasn’t that good Thursday night, but the team was.

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All it took was for Okosieme to light the fuse.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

WORLD CUP

THURSDAY

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United States: 7

Nigeria: 1

Brazil: 2

Italy: 0

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North Korea: 3

Denmark: 1

Germany: 6

Mexico: 0

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*

TRUE COLORS

After seeing Nigerian players with dyed hair, three members of the U.S. team decided it was time to show their true spirit. Page 8

UP NEXT FOR U.S.: North Korea Sunday

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