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NORWAY GAME MARKS END OF A GOLDEN ERA FOR U.S. WOMEN'S SOCCER

Julie Foudy says there have been many times over the past few months when the older members of the U.S. women's soccer team walked into a room, looked into each other's eyes and began to cry.

It's understandable. More than half of the U.S. women have been playing together since before the 1996 Olympics. Several of them -- including Foudy, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, and Carla Overbeck -- have been together for at least 10 years.

They've watched each other grow together as a team. They've watched each other grow from girls to young women. They've laughed together, cried together, elevated the sport of women's soccer to unimagined heights. They've become the idols of little girls all over the country.

"I can't imagine life without these guys," Foudy said.

But they know their time together is about to end. After Thursday's Olympic gold-medal game against Norway, most of the U.S. women will go their separate ways. Some will play in the fledgling women's pro league, the WUSA. Others will play overseas. Some will quit to coach or spend time with their families.

Thursday's final will mark the end of a glorious era of U.S. women's soccer. The players who shared it want this gold medal desperately. The veterans believe that the turning point in their development, the single moment that sealed a team's competitive bond, was a loss to Norway at the 1995 World Cup.

The U.S. had beaten Norway in the 1991 Cup final. After returning the favor in '95, the Norwegian women crawled together in a victorious conga line, attached from hand to ankle. The Americans looked on in tears, and they told themselves they would not forget it.

"None of us wanted to feel that way again," said Brandi Chastain.

The U.S. and Norway have been fierce rivals ever since. The Americans beat Norway in the semifinals of the '96 Olympics, 2-1, then went on to win the gold. They did not meet in the memorable 1999 World Cup hosted by the U.S., but they have made up for it in the year 2000. This will be the eighth meeting of the year.

The Americans hammered the Norwegians in the qualifying rounds here, 2-0. That evened the season series at 3-3-1. Norway holds the all-time edge, 14-13-2. It is the only country in the world with a winning record against the U.S. No wonder U.S.-Norway is referred to as the biggest grudge match in soccer. The tension is for real.

"Yes, I think so," said Tiffeny Milbrett, the star U.S. forward, "because of all the history. It all started when we beat them in '91 and went on from there. For us, there was the bitterness of losing to them in the World Cup in '95. It's always, always going to be a grudge match with them."

Of course, all good sports rivalries have a basis in mutual admiration and respect. The Americans know the Norwegians will be tough and unrelenting, playing what Overbeck, the veteran U.S. defender, calls "a direct, disruptive style."

"Norway is a great team and they have some great personalities in (Dagny) Mellgren, (Marianne) Petersen and Hege Riise," said U.S. coach April Heinrichs. "Riise is a winner and the kind of player I would have on my team any day. She finds ways to win.

"They play with a great, organized defense," Heinrichs said, "and they play hard and physical at the back. Bente Nordby is also one of the best goalkeepers in the world so their defense is tough to penetrate and it will require a great performance on our part."

The U.S. played flawlessly in their 2-0 win over Norway last week in Melbourne, a performance Heinrichs called "perhaps the best our country's ever had against Norway." But they were listless in a rugged semifinal against Brazil. They were outshot and outplayed, but survived, 1-0, on a goal by Hamm.

"We've played ugly, as far as I'm concerned, in the last two games," Milbrett said. "We had a lot of trouble against Brazil. I don't know the real reason. Honestly, we were tired. We came out a little flat."

That's not likely to be the case Thursday, with a gold medal at stake and several U.S. women playing their final game for the national team. Milbrett said she expects a more spirited, attacking game out of the U.S. She's also certain Norway will be ready.

"You can expect a completely different game," she said. "We were just fortunate to put together the game we did. In no way, shape or form am I expecting another game like that. I expect a game with a lot of chances for either side."

Milbrett said the U.S. team was more relaxed than in past major competitions. There was a lot of pressure at the 1996 Olympics and the 1999 World Cup, when the Americans were the hosts and carried the weight of the nation's soccer fans.

"In '96, it was very important because it helped put our sport on the map," Milbrett said. "It put us in a position of respect. Then in '99, it was important for the future of women's soccer in America. If we'd lost, the growth of soccer might have been halted. It was almost like a crusade.

"This is the first time we've ever had a chance to really play for ourselves."

That should make it even more emotional when they take on Norway for the gold medal. Win or lose, when they walk into the locker room afterward, the tears are bound to flow.

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