Michelle Akers watched from the stands. On the field, the injured star striker was the inspiration for the U.S. women's World Cup soccer team.

"The players wrote Michelle's number and her initials on their socks, because basically we were playing to bring her back into the tournament," said coach Tony DiCicco after the defending world champions beat Denmark 2-0 Thursday."If we get to the quarterfinals, there's a chance that she'll be able to play again. They were playing so Michelle would be able to play in the world championship more than six minutes."

Akers, 29, who scored both goals when the U.S. edged Norway 2-1 to capture the inaugural World Cup in China in 1991 and is the leading career goal scorer for her nation, sustained a mild concussion and a banged up right knee in a 3-3 tie with China in Tuesday's opener.

Thursday's victory virtually clinched a quarterfinal berth for the Americans, who conclude round-robin play Saturday in Helsingborg, southern Sweden, against winless Australia, already eliminated from the knockout phase after losing two straight.

Midfielder Kristine Lilly and striker Tiffeny Milbrett scored in each half against the Danes, who won one of the two pre-World Cup exhibitions over the Americans this year, but seldom looked dangerous this time.

Lilly, one of nine returning members of the team that won the 1991 world championship, scored on a header in the eighth minute after a corner kick by Carin Gabarra.

Milbrett, who came off the bench to score one goal against China after Akers left, made it 2-0 in the 49th minute, side-footing the ball with a low shot past the Danish goalie.

"I actually shot at the far post and it went near," Milbrett laughed.

The United States could easily have won by a bigger margin, wasting a half-dozen scoring chances. Their shots were a little off-target and Danish goalie Dorthe Larsen also turned in several dazzling saves.

"We're really pleased with the result," DiCicco said. "We played hard. We played tactically very intelligently and made our chances when we had them."

U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry was ejected with six minutes left after a controversial call and could be out for the next two games.

She stepped too far out of the 18-yard box, pounding the ball and apparently carried it over the line on the follow-through. Referee Mamadouba Camara of Guinea flashed the red card.

"In the spirit of the game, that was an incorrect call," DiCicco said. "If she comes out and handles the ball because somebody was breaking in, yeah. If she takes somebody down, that's the right call.

"It's very harsh to take an athlete out of a tournament on a call like that."

Mia Hamm, who had an outstanding game for the Americans and set up Milbrett's second goal with a nice pass, took over in goal when Scurry was ejected and had one save.

U.S. team officials filed a formal protest after the game.

"The red card was very hard," said Danish coach Keld Gantzhorn, adding that Danish officials would support the U.S. protest.

The victory gave the United States a 1-0-1 record and four points in Group C. China, which beat Australia 4-2 in Vasteras, central Sweden, also has four points. Denmark has three.

Norway blanked England 2-0 in Karlstad, western Sweden, for its second straight shutout to wrap up the first quarterfinal berth from Group B.

England kept second with three points. Nigeria rallied from a 2-0 deficit to tie Canada 3-3 in the other Group B game in Helsingborg, both teams earning their first point.

Only Australia has been eliminated from the quarters and an automatic berth in the women's inaugural soccer tournament in the Summer Olympics in Atlanta next year.

In Group A, 1991 bronze medalist Sweden, European champion Germany, Brazil and Japan are tied with identical 1-1-0 records. Sweden plays Japan and Germany faces Brazil in the final group matches today.

The top two teams in each of the three groups plus the two third-place teams with the best records advance to the quarterfinals next week.