Aug. 21, 2004
By Pete LaFleur
Fencer Mariel Zagunis is not the only unlikely Olympic medalist with ties to Notre Dame, as Shannon Boxx and her United States teammates are one win away from clinching a medal in women's soccer. At this time a year ago, Boxx - who assisted on Friday's gamewinning goal in the Olympic quarterfinals - had never even played a game for the U.S. and wasn't in the picture for the national team roster (she received a late invitation to the final pre-World Cup training camp). But days after attending that fateful camp, she was named to the United States 2003 World Cup roster and rapidly has become what many consider to be the world's top defensive midfielder in the women's game.
Boxx and two of her former Notre Dame teammates - defenders Kate Sobrero Markgraf (U.S.) and Monica Gonzalez (Mexico) - were in action during Friday's quarterfinal round, with the U.S. holding off a pesky Japan squad (2-1) while Mexico's historic run ended with a 5-0 loss to a Brazil team that includes several players who are products of the teams that the current Notre Dame squad just faced during its Brazilian training tour.
The U.S. played a strong all-around game versus Japan (in Thessaloniki, Greece) and next will face co-favorite Germany in the semifinals on Monday, Aug. 23, at 6:00 p.m. in Heraklio (10:00 a.m. in South Bend, live on MSNBC and Telemundo). The game will be a rematch of the 2003 World Cup semifinal won by Germany, in a 3-0 game that was 1-0 before a pair of goals in stoppage time. Germany rallied for two goals in the final 20 minutes to beat upset-minded Nigreria in the quaterfinals (2-1).
The other semifinal will feature Brazil versus Sweden (a 2-1 winner over Austraila), also on Aug. 23 in Patra (9:00 p.m. local time, 1:00 in South Bend). The bronze-medal game then will be Aug. 26 ( 10:00 a.m. EST, MSNBC/Telemundo) and the gold-medal game on Aug. 29 (1:00 p.m. EST, NBC/Telemundo), both in Athens.
Gonzalez and her Mexican teammates saw an end to their historic run that included a 2-1 win over Canada in Olympic qualifying, a 1-1 tie with China in Olympic group play and a respectable 2-0 loss to Germany. Gonzalez, a five-year player at Notre Dame from '97-'01, was a founding member of the Mexican Women's National Team in 1998 and currently serves as the team's captain.
Sobrero (a 1998 Notre Dame graduate who now goes by her married name of Kate Markgraf) was shifted from her left back spot to a central defender role vs. Japan, playing alongside Joy Fawcett while veteran Brandi Chastain played on the left side and Cat Reddick was moved to the bench. Sobrero and the rest of the U.S. defense have allowed just two goals in four Olympic games (also 3-0 vs. Greece, 2-0 vs. Brazil, 1-1 vs. Australia). She now has logged 125 career games with the U.S. Women's National Team, earlier playing on teams that won the 1999 World Cup, claimed the silver medal at the 2000 Olympics and took third at the 2003 World Cup.
The U.S. opted for a 4-3-3 formation in Friday's game, with Abby Wamback returning to the forward line (she missed the Australia game due to yellow-card accumulation). Veteran Kristine Lilly had moved up from midfielder to forward in Wambach's place but remained at that spot vs. Japan, combining with Wambach and Mia Hamm for the potent three-forward look.
Lilly's relentless dribbling produced the game's first goal, two minutes before halftime. Lilly had carried the ball into the left side of the box and later regained possession, sending a right-footed volley from 10 yards inside the left post for her 97th career goal and second in as many games.
Japan then scored early in the second half, on a free kick that skipped past a player from each team and went on into the left side of the net.
The decisive goal included an unusual sequence started by Hamm's free kick. Japan tried to catch the U.S. in an offside trap and rushed forward as the ball was chipped into the penalty area - but four U.S. players had rushed forward and were isolated on the goalkeeper Nozomi Yamogo.
The ball fell to Boxx, who calmly dribbled toward the 'keeper with plenty of time to spare. Yamago came out to challenge at the near right post but Boxx simply touched the ball to her left and Wambach walked the ball over the line for her 31st career goal and third of the '04 Olympics.
"Abby had mentioned something right before, saying 'watch the trap.'I stayed behind the line a little bit and watched and waited and I was definitely (onside)," said Boxx, who has compemented her devastating defensive play with a timely offensive spark in her 30 career games with Team USA (she has 11 goals and 4 assists).
"It was a little nerve-wracking when I got the ball, but I could hear Abby yelling at me telling me to settle as I had time, so I was glad that she was behind me and stayed onside so I could give her the ball.
"I definitely was in a good position and wanted to do something good with it.I didn't really have a shot because the 'keeper had the positioning on me, so I'm glad that Abby was there," added Boxx, who graduated from Notre Dame in 1999 and has postgraduate plans for studies in psychology (she also is engaged to Sean Takata, with the couple set to marry in 2005).
Wambach was quick to send the praise back in Boxx's direction.
"Shannon Boxx gets all the credit on that goal.For her to have the composure to be able to look up and hear me, I was screaming my head off to tell her to stay composed and take her time because there was nobody around," said Wambach.
"I think (the Japanese defense) were probably still at the top of the 18 at that point.Our coaches told us that they like to pull that trap.Shannon stayed onside and took a great touch and had the composure to look up and see that we had a bunch of the people on the back post and all we had to do to stay onsides.It's probably the easiest goal I'll ever score in a world event."
United Staes head coach April Heinrichs said that the U.S. anticipated Japan's free-kick strategy.
"After the first free kick, we noticed that Japan would pull a very aggressive trap. So we told our forward to go with their back line and let our midfielders run through," explained Heinrichs.
"It was great execution on Shannon Boxx and Abby Wambach's part because they were almost in so easily that you could have lost their concentration, expecting a whistle or a flag or miss-hit the ball trying to make it perfect. So I'm really proud that (Shannon) cleaned it up and pushed it very selflessly over to Abby Wambach."
All 11 U.S. starters logged the full 90 minutes while weathering the 93-degree heat at Kaftanzolglio Stadium. The U.S. finished with a 12-7 overall shot advantage (7-3 in shots on goal) and held a 6-4 edge in corner kicks. All but six of the game's 25 fouls were whistled against the Americans (including yellow cards issued to Lilly and Hamm).
Additional postgame comments follow below:
Heinrichs on the match: "We're excited to be going to the semifinals. You saw that it was a tight game and Japan has made remarkable improvement since the World Cup and since the last time we played them. This was a breakout game for the U.S. as we played all the players for the full 90 minutes, which is statement of our confidence in them and in our fitness moving forward to the semifinals."
Heinrichs on playing on three less rest days that Japan, unprecedented in a world championship: "Playing Japan on two days rest as they had five days rest and coming out with a win in a commanding fashion is a good lift for our team right now. We played with an aggressive attacking and defensive mentality and the best thing is that we sustained that for 90 minutes."
Heinrichs on facing Germany in the semifinal: "It's a match-up we are excited to have. It's will be a match-up of some beautiful soccer. The last time we played was the semifinals of the (2003) World Cup and I feel to this day that it was one of the greatest games ever played in the women's game, so it will meet all expectations."
Heinrichs on the lineup changes: "We decided that in a 4-3-3 we could put some pressure on Japan, that Kristine Lilly could give us some flank play, that Lindsay Tarpley could dig out second balls for us and play-make against a very athletic team, and that Brandi Chastain could help compose us in the back.It's the old mantra, that the best defense is a good offensive and that helped us get forward and play in Japan's end."
Goalkeeper Briana Scurry on the changes on the U.S. back line: "(Chastain) has the intangible of experience and her soccer mind is incredible, so it was great to have her out there again.Moving (Kate Makgraf) to the inside was a good move on our part because of her speed, trying to manage a fast Japanese team that comes down the middle a lot of times."
Forward Mia Hamm on the game and the first goal: "I think we did some really good things.We probably possessed the ball better than we have, especially in the first 20 minutes and we got behind them when we could.The first goal was a result of Tarpley challenging the 'keeper. If you don't challenge the 'keeper, it's an easy ball for her to pick up and then you had (Lilly) there just scraping."