U.S. players Cindy Parlow (3), Briana Scurry (1), Joy Fawcett (14) and Carin Gabarra (12) celebrate their 2-1 victory over China. (Photo by Ruediger Fessel/Bongarts/Getty Images)

By Phil Minshull, Special to Universal Sports

Team USA won 44 gold medals in 1996, when the Olympics were last held in the United States with Atlanta being the host city, but few were as dramatic and thrilling as the triumph by the U.S. women’s soccer team.

The U.S. had taken third place at the previous year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Sweden but the reigning world champions Norway arrived in Atlanta as the clear favorites for the initial Olympic women’s soccer tournament.

Captained by midfielder Julie Foudy, the U.S. women opened their preliminary group account with a comfortable 3-0 victory over Denmark before going on to beat Sweden 2-1.

However, a 0-0 draw against China, who they had beaten 2-0 in the third-place match at the World Cup, meant that the U.S. finished second in their group on goal difference and had to face Norway in the semi-finals.

In a match of high tension at Athens’ Sanford Stadium, the U.S. fell behind after 18 minutes but eventually got back on level terms 14 minutes before the end thanks to a Michelle Akers penalty.

Ten minutes into sudden death overtime, Shannon MacMillan found the net for the decisive goal to secure a return to the Sanford Stadium three days later and put the U.S. into the gold medal match against a familiar foe, China.

In the final, in front of almost exuberant 77,000 fans, MacMillan was again the heroine.

She opened the scoring after 19 minutes, pouncing on a loose ball after a Mia Hamm shot had rebounded off the post.

Although China equalized after 32 minutes and continued to keep up the pressure, Tiffeny Milbrett put the U.S. ahead again with 22 minutes left to play and Foudy marshaled her team successfully through some anxious moments during the remainder of the match. The U.S. won Olympic gold with a 2-1 victory over China.

Buoyed by their Olympic triumph, the core of the U.S. squad were to go on and win the World Cup three years later in 1999.