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Aug 25, 2004

Last chance to Hamm it up on big stage

ATHENS, Greece -- As we grow older and slow down just a bit, we learn to compensate.

If we get tired, we might take a nap or go to sleep a bit earlier than normal.

If we hurt our back, we don't lift as much.

And if we have arthritis, we take some medicine to ease the pain and help the movement.

The problem with athletes is that we witness their decline in person or on our televisions every day. It is difficult to hide.

Which brings us to American forward Mia Hamm, who certainly isn't the same Mia Hamm who dazzled us so many years ago when she was scoring goals by the buckets to help bring her international goal total to the 153 she brings into Thursday night's women's Olympic gold-medal match against Brazil.

But that doesn't make her any less vital to the U.S. women's Olympic team. Hamm, who will call it an international career on Thursday, is still better than 99 percent of the world's women's players. But at 32, she is considered an old lady in international soccer, especially for a forward whose speed and quickness has been her lifeblood as a player.

"There are definitely some aspects of my game that are not the same anymore," Hamm said last month. "I don't recover like I used to. But if I didn't feel I could help the team, I wouldn't be out there."

In her prime, Hamm was a handful and a half to handle. How could a team defend someone so skilled, so fast and with so much vision?

Pick your poison: If you pushed her to the outside, Hamm would send crosses into the middle toward some prolific-scoring teammates. If you allowed Hamm an inside route, she would take the ball and head toward the goal, ready to do some serious damage.

And just to keep the opposition honest, she would try to chip the opposing keeper (it worked with a spectacular goal vs. China at the 1998 Goodwill Games).

Hamm's reputation as the world's greatest international goal scorer precedes herself. We expect Mia of 2004 to be the Mia of 1996. That isn't fair because she is eight years older, although certainly wiser.

So, she has learned to modify her game. Instead of going full tilt for 90 minutes, Hamm waits for her opportunities and then turns it up a notch or two, running like a 24-year-old again. Instead of trying to score all the time, Hamm is content to be a playmaking forward, setting up teammates from the run of play or from a free kick or corner kick.

"It's the benefit of experience and maturation," U.S. coach April Heinrichs said yesterday. "You know where and how to make your runs and when not to and how to peel away and be as dangerous a player in the passing side of the game as she is in taking on people.

"Her evolution as an athlete has been remarkable. About every year or year in a half people say she is not what she once was and she proves them wrong. Again they say, she doesn't have the steps she once had. She finds a way to wiggle past or get through to beat somebody, always putting her opponent just to her backside so she can continue to be the personality player for our team."

Heinrichs cited Hamm's role in Heather O'Reilly's winning goal in the 2-1 extra-time win over Germany in the semifinals on Monday night.

"The ball was played long from Christie (Rampone) to up Abby Wambach. Mia was in our half of the field," she said. "This was 99 minutes into the game. Abby makes this run from behind the ball to get a penetrating pass from Christie. Now Mia's in and Mia takes a couple of touches and of course, slips a perfect ball over to Heather O'Reilly. Never a better example of experience and wisdom."

The biggest criticism of Hamm is that she hasn't come up big in knock-out round matches.

The expectations are high, very high and the realizations and production have been low.

In 36 Olympic and Women's World Cup matches, she has 13 goals, a decent ratio. However, in games beyond the first round, she has only two goals and in 16 games (one in a third-place win over China in 1995 and another in a 2-0 semifinal victory over Brazil in 2000). In last year's WWC, Hamm turned playmaker, setting up five goals in as many games while scoring twice (but none in three knockout-round encounters).

In these Summer Games, Hamm has two goals and one assist, which set up the game-winning goal in the thrilling 2-1 semifinal win over Germany.

Does that make her an underachiever and not an impact player because she hasn't stepped up and scored a key goal?

It depends on how you define impact player.

If you put the two previous Olympic finals under the microscope, Hamm has been in the middle of things as a creator, not a scorer of goals.

Despite limping around with an injured ankle in 1996, Hamm set up both American goals in the 2-1 gold-medal win over China in Athens, Ga.

On the first score, which Shannon MacMillan's 19th-minute goal, Hamm took Kristine Lilly's left-wing cross and fired a shot that Chinese goalkeeper Gao Hong managed to get a hand on. The ball bounded off the left post as MacMillan pounced on the rebound and tucked it into the net from four yards.

On the second, Hamm fed overlapping defender Joy Fawcett, who raced into the penalty area on the right side. Fawcett placed a short pass across the box to Tiffeny Milbrett, who beat Gao from five yards in the 68th minute.

"Like always, Mia impacts a game whether she scores or not," defender Brandi Chastain said at the time. "She tears defenses apart. Because of her, we were able to get Tiffeny (Milbrett) and Shannon (MacMillan) behind the defense. She's awesome."

Four years later in Sydney, her right-wing cross set up Milbrett's dramatic header with only a handful of seconds remaining in injury time to force extra time before the U.S. finally succumbed to Norway in OT, 3-2.

Not bad, not bad at all.

NBC announcer Lori Walker, a former teammate of Hamm's at the University of North Carolina, has watched Mia evolve through the years.

"The greatest quality of any high-level striker is that they want to be a difference-maker," she said. "As a young goal-scorer, you define being a difference-maker as one who puts the ball in the net. That's certainly what I remember of Mia during her freshman year.

"What I have seen with her evolution, watching her with the (Washington) Freedom and watching her go through the ups and downs of her game, she has redefined on how to be an impact player. She works so diligently on her defending, something not many forwards take pride in. She has worked so hard on her passing.

"A player like Abby Wambach has been a gift for both of them because they complement each other so much. It allowed Mia to take that pressure off herself to be the only goal-scorer. To contribute in other ways has really rounded out her game."

Mia has 90 minutes, perhaps 120, to be an impact player one last time.

Gut feeling

After nailing the semifinals, I feel the pressure of the entire world on my back for the gold-medal match. But here goes: The U.S. will defeat Brazil, 3-1. Shannon Boxx, Wambach and Hamm will score for the U.S. as the Fab Five gets the medal and victory lap they deserve.

Michael Lewis, soccer columnist for the New York Daily News, will provide commentary about the U.S. women's Olympic team and other soccer matches at the Summer Games in Athens for ESPN.com. He is the only journalist to have covered 21 of 22 U.S. Women's National Team games in the last two Olympics (1996 and 2000) and Women's World Cup (1999 and 2003). He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com