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Jerry’s World

Akers, Scurry have been dominant forces, but they need help.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Tuesday, July 6, 1999) -- The pre-Women’s World Cup hype centered on Ulrika Karlsson (Sweden), Hong Gao (China), Silke Rottenberg (Germany), Bente Nordby (Norway). And to a lesser extent, Memunatu Sulemana (Ghana).

Nobody talked much about the goalkeeper on the United States women's soccer team.

Maybe it was because frequently she has little to do. But now it turns out that Briana Scurry is indeed an integral part of the American team that has fought its way to the 1999 Women's World Cup final.

She allowed just one goal in Group A competition (coming after teammate Julie Foudy botched a clearance against Nigeria), two in the quarterfinals against Germany (one an own goal by teammate Brandi Chastain and other an unstoppable 18-yarder to the far upper corner by Bettina Wiegmann), and blanked Brazil in the semifinals.

She was steady as a rock despite considerable late pressure in the 3-2 win against Germany. But that was just the appetizer for an extraordinary effort in the 2-0 victory against Brazil. Without her, the Americans probably would be playing for third place Saturday in the Rose Bowl. She had six saves, including three of world-class caliber in one of the greatest goalkeeping performances in memory.

She warmed up with a three-way first half collision stop of Pretinha, also involving U.S. defender Joy Fawcett, as she dove in to stop a likely goal. That was merely the prelude to three extraordinary second-half saves:

* One was a stretched-out dive with her right hand stopping a goal by Nene.
* One was a superb backstepping move and a leaping tip over the crossbar of a high, deflected ball from Nene headed for the upper left corner.
* One was a sprawling two-handed stop from Pretinha's close-in shot.

Scurry, not one of the team's big names, stepped up big -- and now looms as an essential blue chip for the title game against favored China. The Chinese have strength at every position, and forward Sun Wen, in particular, has elevated her game, scoring seven goals. Among their leaders: athletic goalkeeper Hong Gao, who has allowed two goals.

The United States will match Scurry against Gao with no hesitation. No field player consistently has taken charge for the Americans, who are getting solid performances from practically everyone, but nothing spectacular --with one exception, the heroic Michelle Akers, for whom we must digress.

Her ongoing battle with Chronic Fatigue Syndome has been a frequent storyline during this World Cup. Same with her numerous knee injuries. Impossible to beat? There's more to this 33-year-old Superwoman.

Let's throw in the Germany game, where, hampered by a shoulder injury caused by an overzealous fan grabbing her high-fiving hand and yanking it after the previous match, she gutted it out despite several painful trips to the ground. And the next game, where she went down with a bump to the back of her head after an air battle with a Brazilian player, and then went down again with cuts to her forehead from a flying foot in another collision -- but still finished. And scored the insurance goal on a penalty kick -- set up when her header sprang Mia Hamm, who was then taken down -- after tying up the high-scoring Sissi most of the match.

"You get to the point where you get so beat up that another ding is not going to stop you," Akers said. "I've learned how to kind of just put it behind me and focus on the job at hand."

Added coach Tony DiCicco: "She inspires her teammates . . . and I think she's starting to inspire a lot of America."

Akers has aged gracefully. She was the unstoppable scorer in 1991, scoring 10 goals as a forward to lead the Americans to triumph. She was hurt during the 1995 tournament, and the United States finished third.

She adapted well to her new position the past few years. She plays both ways, doesn't yield any ground and takes no guff (it was fitting she received the first yellow card for the Americans in the closing seconds against Brazil).

Akers and Scurry, they have been the dominant forces for the home side. They'll need more help Saturday.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at jlangdon@gns.gannett.com.

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