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US Women's Soccer Team Gearing up for Athens Olympics - 2004-08-06

The United States women's soccer team is looking to win the Olympic title after taking home the silver medal four years ago in Sydney.

The Athens Olympic games will be the last for 1996 and 2000 Olympic team members Brandi Chastain, Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly and Mia Hamm.

Joining these players in pursuit of gold are goalies Briana Scurry and Kristin Luckenbill, forwards Heather O'Reilly, Cindy Parlow and Abby Wambach, midfielders Shannon Boxx, Angela Hucles, Lindsay Tarpley and Aly Wagner, and defenders Kate Markgraf, Heather Mitts, Christie Rampone and Cat Reddick.

The United States, Brazil, Australia and host Greece are in one of the three groups for the 10-team Olympic football tournament. The other two groups have only three teams each, and after round-robin play only two teams are eliminated, with eight advancing to the quarterfinals.

U.S. midfielder Kristine Lilly said the team's approach to the tournament will be the same as every other tournament the Americans have played in.

"Obviously the set-up this year is a little different than the past Olympics seeing that we only had two groups the last Olympics, but we go into the Olympics taking care of business, and whether we have two teams to play or three teams we have to get it done and that's our first goal, to get out of our group," she says.

The Americans begin their quest for gold against host country Greece on August 11 in Heraklio on the island of Crete. That's two days before the official opening ceremonies in Athens.

Even though the Americans have dominated women's soccer through the years, winning the 1996 Olympic gold in Atlanta, the 1998 Goodwill Games gold in Brisbane, Australia, and the 1991 and 1999 women's World Cup titles, they come to Athens having lost their last two major tournaments.

At the 2000 Olympics, they lost the gold medal game in overtime to Norway. At the 2003 women's World Cup, the host Americans placed third behind runner-up Sweden and winner Germany.

In preparation for the Athens games, the team has traveled, practiced, competed and lived together for the last eight months. Star forward Mia Hamm said the training camp was tough, but brought them together as a team and helped create a good relationship with their coach April Heinrichs.

Team captain and midfielder Julie Foudy said the team goes into every tournament wanting a win and hopes that the veterans can leave the sport on top.

"It doesn't matter if it's our last Olympics or if it was our first, we want to do well. That's the standard that we always set as a team," says Ms. Foudy.

Even with many veterans leading this American soccer team, a group of younger players are ready to step up and help them win.

Midfielder Kristine Lilly said 20-year-old Lindsay Tarpley will make a positive impact on the team in their attempt to return to the top medal podium.

"She's always trying to learn something," says Lilly. "She's working hard, she's listening, but you don't know if she's listening to everything I think that the older kids are saying, just to pick up little nuances we have gone through, so she's making a great impact and every time she steps on the field something happens."

Mia Hamm also thinks 19-year-old Heather O'Reilly's speed will make the U.S. team stronger.

"She has a skill that is absolutely frightening to any defender," says Hamm. "She's the fastest person on our team, she's one of the fastest players I've ever seen on the soccer field, and whether she starts or comes in off the bench, that's a weapon that's kind of hard to contain."

While the talent gap between the United States and the other countries has narrowed, 33-year-old Julie Foudy said it has been good for women's soccer.

"You're seeing places that traditionally didn't promote women's soccer, or fund it, are [now] funding it," she says. "I mean, Mexico being in the Olympics for the first time, is a great example. They're now funding a women's program and spending a lot of energy and money on the youth programs as well, for girls."

Even with the rest of the world catching up, the five soon-to-be retired players hope to stand on the top medal podium in Athens and hear their national anthem play one last time with their American teammates.