SYDNEY, Australia - They had won so much through so many years, and now they were settling for second best, standing on a podium, waiting for silver medals to be placed around their necks as a mist gathered and an era ended.
And then one player, the most famous of them all, Mia Hamm, walked down the line, repeating the same words to teammates still dazed by a shocking defeat.
"Keep your head up," Hamm said.
After showing the world how to win at women's soccer, the U.S. team showed last night how to lose.
In a defeat as wrenching as any at the Summer Olympics, the Americans were beaten by Norway, 3-2, as substitute Dagny Mellgren scored a heartbreaker of a goal 12 minutes into overtime.
The Americans could have complained about a last call that didn't go their way. They could have tried to tough out a difficult defeat by claiming it didn't mean much after all their recent success, including the 1996 Olympic gold and 1999 World Cup title.
But they would have none of it. Their greatest rival beat them in a game that Brandi Chastain said was one for the ages.
"This is the best game I've ever been a part of," said Chastain, who shot to world fame when she beat China in last year's World Cup final shootout, then stripped off her shirt to reveal her sports bra.
"Everyone wants to be the winner," she said. "But sometimes it's about the relentless, the heart, the not giving up."
The sentiment was as pure and simple as the final was glorious. Riding a wave of emotion and displaying uncanny craft and skill, the teams engaged in a 102-minute epic.
The Americans attacked, and the Norwegians countered, in a game filled with dramatic shifts and fantastic goals that spiraled to new heights after Ragnhild Gulbrandssen put Norway ahead 2-1 in the 78th minute.
The desperate Americans launched wave after wave of attacks. Finally, in the 90th minute, with Norway ready to celebrate, the Americans came roaring back.
Hamm darted down the right flank and snapped a beauty of a cross to Tiffeny Milbrett. The tiny, swift forward leaped high and headed the ball into the net for her second goal of the game, sending the teams into overtime.
"One of our mantras is we will never, never, never give up," said U.S. coach April Heinrichs.
The Norwegians displayed that same spirit. They could have folded after giving up a late goal.
"When they scored, it was terrible," Norway defender Silje Joergensen said. "We knew if we stayed together like a team, we could win. We had to start again from scratch."
Norway got the winning goal on a weird overtime play. The ball caromed off the head of U.S. defender Joy Fawcett, then smacked off the elbow of Norway's Mellgren. There was no hand-ball call, and play carried on, as Mellgren slotted a shot to the right post, beating goalie Siri Mullinix, who got a finger on the ball but couldn't push it away.
U.S. captain Julie Foudy approached referee Sonia Denoncourt and said the official told her: "Don't do this to me, Jules, it came off her chest."
The Norwegians celebrated. The Americans stood, some with their hands on their hips, others hugging and crying.
"We have to hold our heads up high," Foudy said. "We're not used to losing."
For the Americans, it wasn't supposed to end this way. They had won all the big prizes over four years. And in a game that may have brought together a generation of great players for one last time, they had lost.
"That's why it's so hard," Foudy said.
She talked of the bond that linked the team and the tears that flowed in the locker room. And she also discussed the team's legacy. They weren't soccer pioneers so much as the game's first true American stars, who got a nation interested in a global sport normally dominated and played by men.
"People can see us and understand team unity," she said. "There have been ups and downs, and we've always stayed together. I hope that is our legacy."
Was it really the end of an era?
None of the Americans really committed either way.
So it was left to Norway's coach, Per-Mathias Hagmo, to put things into perspective.
"The U.S. is a big nation," he said. "They will have great teams. It will be very, very hard to beat the U.S. team in the future."
But this team and these players were clearly special.
They remained together in the medal ceremony, locking their arms, rising to the podium, accepting second place as easily as they once claimed first.
"You don't have to practice losing to be good at it," Heinrichs said. "Our women are classy, confident."
"Our team won a silver medal," she said, "but our game was golden."