By Al Mattei


With 22 seconds left to play, Tracey Fuchs of the U.S. women's national field hockey team flicked a superb aerial which a heavily favored Argentina team mishandled in its own end. Carla Tagliente, streaking into the morass and uncertainty, was able to put the ball over the line five seconds before the horn sounded.

Fantasy? No, reality. This actually happened in the 1999 Pan-American Games gold-medal contest between the two teams, with an Olympic berth on the line.

It was all there for the United States to make a huge step forward, thanks to this goal. It leveled the score at 2-2, and the play -- Fuchs to Tagliente -- was supposed to represent a symbolic changing of the guard for Team USA, like the 1987 Canada Cup when a feathered pass from Wayne Gretzky to Mario Lemieux resulted in the cup-winning goal against the Soviets.

There was just one problem. The Tagliente goal game in the first half of the gold-medal game; there was another 35 minutes left to play.

It is easy to point, therefore, to Argentina's three-goal second half in its 5-2 win in the gold-medal game and call it a fold on the part of the United States team. It is, however, much more complex than that.

Argentina, you see, came into the contest one player short on its bench. Cecilia Rongoni, a key fullback, was suspended from the tournament for throwing a ball deliberately at umpire Gill Clarke of Great Britain. No red card had been issued at the time of the infraction, which occurred in the pool round against the United States.

This meant that Argentina had just three field players and a goalkeeper as substitutes in the championship game, and pretournament pundits had given the United States an edge over everyone else in terms of physical fitness. Too, the United States team was able to rest the thirtysomething Fuchs for one game to let her recover from an illness.

Match fitness, however, was another story. Thouugh Argentina was a player short on its bench, had momentum going against it, the Albicelestes were still able to score a pair of goals in a four-minute span of the second half.

As the Argentine publication Torneos y Compentencias put it, "One of the virtues of this Argentine team is its temperament, and in the second half, it tilted the field of play and pressured the United States area and, after the (Magdalena) Aicega goal (in the 43rd minute) loosened up the team, it showed some of the best individual plays of the match."

Argentina, in short, was able to ratchet up its style of play in the gold-medal game to that mythical "next level." It did not show that next level in pool play in a 2-1 win over Team USA, possibly giving the Americans false hope in the final.

What is next for the United States is a Test series in Sydney, helping to break in the site that will be used for the Olympics in 2000.

But further down the road is a most critical tournament: the Olympic qualifier in Milton Keynes, England in March of 2000. There, the United States will join the free-for-all in hopes of snaring one of the remaining Olympic berths in the 10-team tournament.

Until then, what is to be the fate of Team USA? The Sydney tournament team will be populated with the veterans, since the future of the team -- stars like Tagliente (Maryland), Amy Herz (Connecticut), Traci Forchetti (James Madison), Jessica Rose (Michigan), Lorraine Vizzuso and Jessica Coleman (Virginia) -- will be in the midst of their college seasons.

As for the Olympic qualifying team, a lot will be decided at the 1999 "A" camp at Rutgers University, since it will be the first in which USA head coach Tracey Belbin will have a chance to assess the American talent pool.

Belbin did a fine job coaching the Americans to within 22 minutes of beating the favored women's field hockey nation of the Western Hemisphere. Certainly, the United States did not deserve to be three goals worse than Argentina.

But in a nation in the midst of a women's sports resolution, with star-spangled team sports winning every championship in sight, more is expected from USA Field Hockey than ever before.

Perhaps it will be these off-field expectations that will spur the United States women's team to greatness. The on-the-field advantages like a longer bench, momentum, and physical fitness did not do the trick this time.

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