“We Were Naïve, But We Were Spectacular”
The following is an excerpt from the new book It's Not the Glory, the Remarkable First 30 Years of U.S. Women's Soccer. It is reprinted with permission of author Tim Nash.
o here you are. As little as four or five years ago, some of you didn’t even know there was such a thing as the U.S. Women’s National Team. Now you are on the other side of the world, literally, getting ready to play for the 1991 world championship.
Just how good are you? In your country’s history, the team has played 59 games. By comparison, European countries—Italy, Sweden, Norway— have played more than twice that number. Still, of the 59 games you have won 35, lost 18, and tied six. Pretty good so far. However, nearly half of your games have been played against just three teams—China eight times, and Norway and Canada seven times each.
Recent results have been good. You destroyed the competition in the regional qualifying tournament, and a subsequent trip to France produced positive, confident-building results. Leading up to the World Championship, you have won 15 games, lost six, and tied one. Are you ready? Who knows. There are certainly reasons to be concerned. First, your leading scorer, Michelle Akers, seems to be competing with herself to see which she can get more of—goals or injuries. Her medical chart lists injuries to feet, toes, knees, shoulders, a concussion or two, and several instances when she had to spit out broken teeth. Her latest? She tore up her kneecap after losing a battle with a sprinkler head, suffered a week earlier while working a soccer camp. Why, you might ask, would someone a week away from the biggest tournament of her life slide for a ball in a pointless game at a soccer camp?
“When I first started coaching her, I was always afraid she would hurt herself,” said Dorrance. “I just couldn’t get her to be more careful. But isn’t it a wonderful problem to have as a coach when you have a player who lists her greatest weakness as ‘I take too many physical risks’?”
Next, your captain is playing in pain, a lot of pain. Her knees are deteriorating. Ice bags are attached to April Heinrichs whenever she is off the field. If your team goes all the way to the final, it will be six games in 13 days. If that’s not enough to test your confidence, your central midfielder, Shannon Higgins, the player who so smoothly starts the attack and dictates the pace and flow of the game, has a bone fracture in her foot. Is she going even be able to play? She’ll play, but she will wear a sneaker on one foot. Wait, what? That’s right. She wore a soccer shoe on her left foot and a sneaker on her right. Oh, by the way, she’s right-footed.
So three of your most important players are, let’s say, less than 100 percent. How confident are you now? Oh, one more thing. Just before you left for China, Megan McCarthy, your starting right defender in the 3-4-3 formation that Dorrance employed, tore her ACL. You and your teammates, however, are adamant that McCarthy be allowed to travel with the delegation that went to China. “I remember it was very important to us that Megan came with us to China, even though she was injured and couldn’t play,” said Brandi Chastain. “The team insisted that she go, and that says a lot about how close that team was.”
Your right back spot is open. Now what? No problem, you say. You can use the youngest player on your roster, 19-year-old Mia Hamm. That’s what Dorrance did to make a brave adjustment to his lineup, a switch that would impact the team into the next century. Joy Biefeld (Fawcett) was one of the most effective flank midfielders in the international game. A tireless worker with breakaway speed, Biefeld was an attacking force at right midfield. But Dorrance moved her back to play right defender and put Hamm at right midfield.
Okay, so how do you feel about your team now? As usual, you look to your captain. What does she think? “To a certain extent, we did know a little bit about how good some of the other teams were,” said Heinrichs. “We felt we were prepared and confident. I think by nature Americans are confident athletically, but the training sessions we had gave us more confidence. And the work every player put in on their own time gave us a confidence that there weren’t a lot of countries out there that were doing all the things we were doing.”
No one would know it by watching or listening to Anson Dorrance, but he, too, was unsure how good the Americans were. Concerned about injures and inexperience in the international game, Dorrance let none of it show. “Anson made us feel that we were the best team and had the best players,” remembered Kristine Lilly. “We knew we had great talent, but he instilled that in us every time we stepped on the field.”
Dorrance is also not someone who leaves things to chance, especially something as critical as confidence. “I remember having a meeting with the team,” he said. “I asked them a rhetorical question. I told them there are two ways to go into this World Cup: One is to sneak in on cat’s paws and surprise everyone; the other way is to go in with your flag flying, trumpets blaring, and say ‘We are the best.’ I think it was very clear the way I wanted to go in. I knew we were capable of some amazing things. I was not a cat’s paws kind of guy. I wanted to go in and say, ‘Here we are. Give us your best shot.’ It was a wonderfully powerful mentality that we went in with.”
“We didn’t go in shy, that’s for sure,” said Brandi Chastain.