Julie Foudy remembers USWNT’s Sydney 2000 Gold Medal match on 20th anniversary

They were America's “Golden Generation”; the team credited with revolutionising women's football in the United States and, by extension, the rest of the world.

A year before they flew to Australia to compete in the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, the United States' women's national football team were crowned world champions.

The 1999 Women's World Cup final against China at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. California, was a pivotal moment in the evolution of the women's game: The crowd of 90,000 is still the largest to ever watch a women's sports event; Brandi Chastain's now-famous celebration after scoring the winning penalty has become a defining image in sports history; and current U.S. players — many of whom were part of the team that won consecutive World Cups in 2015 and 2019 — credit 1999 for when their own love of football began.

Naturally, the U.S. arrived in Australia as favourites to take out the gold medal at the 2000 Olympics. For Julie Foudy, who captained the side, that sense of expectation wasn't just external.

“We felt confident, but we always feel confident — but not in a hubris sense of the word,” Foudy told ESPN.

“There was always just this swagger to that group in terms of our expectations. Our expectations as a U.S. team — and this is true to this day — when we walked into a World Cup or an Olympics, we expected to be not just on the podium but on the top of the podium. We felt we were that good.

“I think we were tired, though. I remember that. I remember '99 and the success of that tournament and us winning it meant a lot of media, a lot of sponsorship commitments, a lot of appearances.

“As is sadly still the case with a lot of women's soccer players, you have a small window in which you can make your money. You have this small window of visibility, so you need to strike when the iron is hot. So I remember being a little dazed and foggy about the chaos of the last six months and [thinking], ‘Oh my god, we've got to re-frame and re-focus so that we're rested and mentally and physically ready for the Olympics'.”

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While most of the World Cup-winning team, now known as the '99ers, made their way Down Under, off-field developments meant they weren't at full strength when they arrived in Sydney.

“We didn't have our big star Michelle Akers, who was a legend of the game,” Foudy said. “We called her ‘Mufasa' because she was like the lion in The Lion King; she had always been a big personality, a big player for us.

“We didn't have Carla Overbeck — our [1999] captain — at full health. So those were two giants in our team that we didn't have.

“Although we still had a really good team, it was a different team as well because it was coached by a different national team coach. April Heinrichs came in after '99 when Tony DiCicco wasn't re-hired. So I think we knew that it was going to be a long slog — it wasn't going to be easy — but we felt confident we could get it done.”

The U.S. topped their group in Australia , defeating Norway 2-0, Nigeria 3-1 and drawing 1-1 with arch-rivals China. A tight 1-0 win over Brazil in the semifinals saw the team through to the Gold Medal match against group opponents Norway, who'd won the 1995 Women's World Cup after defeating the U.S. in the semifinals. The two teams had also met in the inaugural Women's World Cup final in 1991, which the U.S. won. It was a fixture heavy with history.

“The final match is seared in my mind,” Foudy said.

“Again, [we were] confident, but realistically aware that Norway had always been a nemesis for us. Back then, it was either China or Norway; those were the two teams we always had to get through when it came to a semifinal or final in every major tournament.

“And we knew how dangerous they could be. Although they played a style of football we didn't love — they played a very direct style and would knock things in with their heads and score off set-pieces often, which we struggled with — we had tremendous respect for what they could do and the damage they could inflict. We knew we were in for a battle.”

The U.S. scored early; a fifth-minute tap-in by Tiffeny Milbrett after a charging run and cut-back by Mia Hamm. The Americans dominated possession, but the Norwegians were stoic and clawed a goal back just before the break: a towering Gro Espeseth header from a corner.

“We were feeling good because we were playing well, right?” Foudy said.

“We scored early, we're knocking the ball around. We could have had a couple at halftime. [But] then we go into halftime and it's 1-1. And it was totally against the run of play, so that was a dagger to us.”

Then, with just over 10 minutes to play, Norway took the lead; another looping cross that U.S. goalkeeper Siri Mullinix misjudged in the air, the ball coming off the shoulder of Ragnhild Gulbrandsen and deflecting into the net.

“It was just one of those games where you're like, ‘Crap,' ” Foudy said.

“She turned her head and it hit the back of her shoulder… it bounced and deflected because our keeper had come out too far. Just these weird things happening.

“Fast-forward to… Tiffeny Milbrett in the dying seconds of the game. I think it was the 92nd minute, and Tiffeny Milbrett — who's like 4'11” [150cm], the shortest player on our team — of all things against Norway, gets this ball driven across and in front of goal, she heads it in to keep us alive at 2-2.

“Then you felt like, ‘OK, this is karma, we're gonna win this.' Tiffeny Milbrett at 4-foot-nothing is scoring against these Norwegian giants in the 92nd minute, [we were] like, ‘We've had this game, we deserve this game.' That's kind of the mentality I went with into overtime.”

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The game went to extra-time, which featured the now-scrapped Golden Goal rule.

And in the 102nd minute, Golden Goal decided the gold medal — though not without controversy after a Norwegian long-ball was cleared into the path of onrushing Dagny Mellgren, deflecting off her arm and falling kindly for the substitute to score the winner.

The referee didn't blow her whistle.

“It was a handball,” Foudy said emphatically.

“You look at it on video now, today, it came off her hand and it was knocked down. And I turned to the referee and I said: ‘You're going to look at that after this, and I want you to know that you just crushed every Olympic dream I had. And I hope you sleep well at night when you watch that video, knowing you crushed every dream I had!'

“I was so mad. I was screaming at her: ‘Live with this!'

“It was gut-wrenching, just the way it happened. Like the roller coaster of that game — up and down, up and down — then you think you have it. I don't even want to go back and look at it.

“That's the thing that still sits with me today, which I struggle with: Just how well we played and yet we couldn't get it done.

“And I get it; that's soccer, right? Sometimes the beauty of soccer is that you can have your best game and not win — beauty in air-quotes. But that, to me… I would have rather lost 4-0.”

Norway would come away with the gold medal — their last major trophy in international women's football — while the U.S. took the silver. It's a testament to the success and high standards of the '99ers that they felt that the silver medal represented failure.

“After that Olympics, it was so gut-wrenching and emotionally defeating,” Foudy said. “We were so close to doing it… that I just remember coming home after the Olympics and it took me a good six months before I even felt like I wanted to eat.

“Again, because we played well, right?

“To their credit, they just finished the few mistakes we made. And then the handball, which you can tell I'm still a little bit bitter about! Maybe I should go back and watch it because maybe it wasn't even a handball at all; [Maybe] it was just my emotion of the moment. I can't even watch that game again; I haven't gone back because it just brings back too much.

“In terms of mental health, I'm as stable and stoic as they come — I don't get a lot of ups and downs — [but] I couldn't get out of the hole. It was bad. And you always get these post-Olympic blues, but this one was one that, to this day I think of that Olympics and I'm just like, ‘Ah.' Soul crushing.”

Despite the result, the 2000 Sydney Olympics was a memorable tournament for Foudy and the U.S. women's team.

While she may not remember fondly what happened on the pitch, Australia's hospitality off it is something she'll never forget — and she's hoping to see more of it when Australia and New Zealand host the Women's World Cup in 2023.

“I remember seeing my parents for the first time two weeks into the event and I was like, ‘Where have you guys been? How come you don't hang out with me on off-days?' And they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we're having too much fun. We're not going to come hang out with you. This place is amazing.'

“They had so much fun in Australia.

“Beyond that, you guys are incredible hosts and so welcoming to the world, which I love.”

Looking forward to the 2023 Women's World Cup, Foudy describes the honour of hosting the tournament as “huge”.

“It's history-changing,” she said.

“It's game-changing for the women's game because it brings a spotlight and an attention, and hopefully years of investment into the game in terms of marketing and support and awareness.

“On top of that, [Australia has] a team like we did in '99 who could win it all. So that in itself — just the possibility of winning a World Cup for the first time on home soil — it has all the elements for the perfect script.”

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