Aug. 20, 2008
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - When the opening whistle blows for Thursday's Olympic women's soccer final in Beijing, China, you can bet there will be a significant Notre Dame presence on the field. Former Irish standouts Kate (Sobrero) Markgraf (`98) and Shannon Boxx (`99) are expected to start for the United States at defender and midfielder, respectively, as the Americans look for a second consecutive Olympic gold medal when they take on Brazil at 9 a.m. (ET) Thursday at Beijing Workers' Stadium in a game that can be seen live in the U.S. on USA Network and the NBC Olympic Soccer Channel.
The United States has advanced to the gold medal game in each of the four Olympics since women's soccer was added to the Olympic docket for the 1996 Atlanta Games. Markgraf has been a part of three of those American squads, winning gold in 2004 (2-1 overtime win over Brazil in Athens, Greece) and taking home a silver medal in 2000 (2-1 overtime loss to Norway in Sydney, Australia). Boxx was a member of the 2004 gold-medal winning squad in Athens, and both she and Markgraf are seeking to join fencer Mariel Zagunis ('10) as the only Olympians with Notre Dame ties to win multiple gold medals in their careers. Zagunis won her second gold earlier this month with a victory in women's sabre, before adding a school-record-tying third Olympic medal with a bronze in women's team sabre. Regardless of Thursday's outcome, Markgraf will tie that standard, also held by track & field's Alex Wilson (bronze in 1928, silver and bronze in 1932 for his native Canada).
The road to the 2008 Olympic gold medal game wasn't easy for Markgraf, Boxx and Team USA. Coming into the Beijing Games with a 21-0-1 record during the '08 season, the United States was stunned by Norway, 2-0, in its opening-round match on Aug. 6. However, the Americans came back with a renewed sense of purpose, taking down Japan (1-0) and New Zealand (4-0) to win Group G over Norway on goal differential (USA plus-3, Norway minus-1) and move on to the knockout (single-elimination) round. Boxx started all three group-stage games for the U.S., while Markgraf started the first two and sat out the New Zealand game with a stomach ailment.
In the quarterfinals, the United States tangled with regional rival Canada, which was led by former Notre Dame All-Americans Melissa Tancredi ('03) and Candace Chapman ('04). Making its first-ever Olympic appearance, the Maple Leafs finished third in Group E play with a 1-1-1 record, defeating Argentina in the opener (2-1; Chapman scored Canada's first Olympic goal in the 27th minute) and tying the host nation, China (1-1) in its next game before closing group play with a 2-1 loss to Sweden (Tancredi scored the Leafs' lone goal in the 63rd minute).
"There was just the perfect speed on the ball," Chapman said of her historic goal. "I said, `you know what, I'm just going to go for it and keep it low to the ground.' It was extremely important to have three points under our belt and to have a game under our belt."
"It was tough to lose, but we already knew before the match that we had qualified for the quarterfinal," Tancredi said after the loss to Sweden.
The quarterfinal game between the North American stalwarts was closely contested, with a 99-minute lightning delay midway through the first half. The U.S. and Canada were tied 1-1 after regulation, but in overtime, Boxx helped the Stars & Stripes advance, serving a pinpoint cross from the left side that Natasha Kai finished with a diving header goal in the 101st minute for a 2-1 victory. Boxx, who was named the Sierra Mist Woman of the Match for her performance in her 100th cap (National Team appearance, the 22nd U.S. player to reach that milestone), collected her first point of these Olympics, after she tallied three points (1G-1A) at the 2004 Athens Games. Markgraf returned to the American backline and helped shut down the Maple Leafs over the final 90 minutes while holding them to eight shots.
"Amy (Rodriguez) got it in the corner and just laid it back and I was wide open," Boxx said of her game-winning assist. "I knew Natasha was in there, so if I could get that cross in behind the back four she could head it in.
"I'm really proud of the team for the way we handled the rain delay," she continued. "Canada is a great squad, and we've played them many times this year. We respect them a lot and have to come out every game and play tough, and battle, but also possess the ball. We did a great job with our possession and created a lot of chances. All year, this team has been great at dealing with pressure of being down a goal, or tied, or having a team come back. We've always fought for 90, 100, whatever it takes, minutes. I like the fact that we are creating the chances and having different people score goals. The next step is having people finish them."
Despite its loss, Canada made a healthy statement about its abilities on the Olympic stage. Playing primarily in the midfield, Chapman started all four games and has set Canadian National Team single-season records with 23 games and 2,028 minutes played thus far in 2008. She also shares the national team mark for starts in one season (23), tying with current teammates Christine Sinclair and Rhian Wilkinson for the record. Tancredi started three of the four games at forward (she missed the China game with an ankle injury), and her score against Sweden moved her into 10th place on Canada's all-time goals list (8).
Meanwhile, the United States moved on to a rematch with Japan in the semifinals, and the Japanese surprised the reigning gold medalists with a score in the 16th minute. That lead didn't last long, as the Americans reeled off four unanswered goals before Japan got a meaningless tally in stoppage time, sending the USA back to the Olympic final with a 4-2 victory. Both Notre Dame alums started for the U.S., with Markgraf starting the sequence that eventually led to Lori Chalupny's goal in the 44th minute and gave the Stars & Stripes the lead for good.
"We were only behind by one goal, and we had 70 minutes to score two goals," Markgraf said after the game. "That's the great thing about soccer -- you can score at any moment. We weren't concerned and we started to play our game better and better. We started controlling the ball and getting a couple goals before the half."
The United States and Brazil have developed a healthy rivalry in recent years, dating all the way back to the Americans' 2-0 win over the Samba Queens in the 1999 FIFA World Cup semifinals. The USA also ousted Brazil in the 2004 Olympics, but the South Americans got a measure of revenge at the 2007 FIFA World Cup in Hangzhou, China, downing the U.S., 4-0, in the semifinals -- that game was particularly controversial, as Boxx was ejected late in the first half following a second yellow card (caution) in a play where it appeared Boxx was fouled from behind by Brazilian forward Christiane, but the Swiss referee whistled the American instead.
The two nations also have played one another three times in 2008, with the United States (led by starters Boxx and Markgraf) defeating an undermanned Brazil squad by the same 1-0 score in all three games (once at the Peace Queen Cup in South Korea, the other two in friendlies at Commerce City, Colo., and San Diego). The last of the three Brazil games was especially costly for the Americans, as star forward Abby Wambach suffered a broken leg in the first half, ending her Olympic dream. Yet, the U.S. has adjusted well since that injury and looks to be clicking on all cylinders heading into Thursday's gold-medal clash.
"I think it's been great that we've had a chance to play them a couple times in the warm-ups because it's always good to play great teams," Boxx said. "It will be different as there are some great players that weren't there, but we've seen those players in the past so we're definitely prepared for that. We're ready for an exciting game."
"Of course there's motivation (following the loss in the '07 World Cup semifinal)," she continued. "I would say Brazil is one of our biggest rivals, so there is always motivation to beat your rival. Even if we won that last one, there would be motivation to win this on since you're playing for a gold medal."
"We give Brazil an ultimate amount of respect, but we also have confidence in ourselves," Markgraf added. "We know it's going to be a great game and we're not taking anything for granted."