Taking on the World
It all gets rolling on June 19, when the United States meets Denmark to kick off the 16-team tourney at the Meadowlands. Ticket sales have already surpassed the most optimistic of expectations, with more than 500,000 already sold. Only nosebleeds remain for the World Cup Opening Ceremonies at Giants Stadium, which will feature pop performers N'SYNC as well as that first U.S. match.
It's only the third-ever Women's World Cup and the first one hosted by the U.S. Playing at home and favored to win, the Americans have become quite an attraction. Soccer Barbiemodelin', Nike buildingnamin', Michael Jordanflippin' forward Mia Hamm usually bears the brunt of the bright lights, but in the months leading up to WWC '99, some of the focus has shifted to a number of Hamm's seasoned teammates: SI for Women cover girl and mistress of the midfield Julie Foudy, who cocaptains the team with super mom and super defender Carla Overbeck; the awe-inspiring and chronic-fatigue-conquering Michelle Akers; the extensively capped Kristine Lilly; and versatile former-forward-now-midfielder Brandi Chastain all of whom, along with two-time mom and tough mother of a defender Joy Fawcett, were on the 1991 squad that won the first world championship.
Making her second World Cup appearance and stepping on the gas whenever she hits the grass is feisty forward Tiffeny Milbrett. The 26-year-old speedster is often and quite successfully paired up front with Hamm, and appears to be at the top of her game. She recently became only the second player in Women's National Team history to score four goals in a single match in April's 9-0 spanking of Japan. Milbrett also notched two assists in that game, tying her with Akers, Hamm, and Chastain for most points in a game (10). She leads the U.S. in scoring this year with nine goals and eight assists, and her 56 career goals puts her in fourth place on the all-time scoring list.
Certainly the contributions past and present of vets are significant. But in picking a Rose Bowlbound roster, coach Tony DiCicco strove for that delicate balance between the experience needed for a competition of this caliber and the youth that will give that experience the legs to carry the team through the tournament and into the 2000 Olympics and beyond. The squad's average age is 24.5 and 13 players were part of the '96 gold-medal-winning Olympic Team. Six of the players are competing in their third World Cup and were on the field both when the U.S. won in '91 in China and when the team took third in '95 in Sweden. For six of the women this is their second Cup, and eight are making the trip for the first time.
Those newcomers, of course, are the team's lesser-known entities. Take forward Danielle Fotopoulos and defender Lorrie Fair, who will be looked to in the future but could have a more immediate impact this summer in their first major tournament. Among the rookies, the greatest of expectations have been placed on Fotopoulos, the 23-year-old forward out of the University of Florida. She came out of college packing the NCAA record for career goals with 118 number 118 coming in Florida's 1-0 upset of North Carolina in this year's national championship game obliterating the previous record of 103 held by teammates Hamm and Milbrett.
"I'm ready for it all to start," said Fotopoulos over a mobile phone on a bus full of girls headed to Atlanta for state soccer tryouts, which is where she decided to spend her week "off" before reporting to training on Sunday. The increased media attention has been somewhat of an adjustment, she says, but a smooth one thanks to DiCicco and the experience of the older players. The veterans, says Fotopoulos, make sure everyone's head is in the right place when they're off the field so that their focus is intact once they're on it. As for her own game, Fotopoulos says, "I want to work on taking more control over the ball. . . . It's good to get passes in, but I also want be on the receiving end of them." She added that she would like to be a little less "intimidated." Of course, it's hard to imagine anything intimidating Fotopoulos, who stands 5-11 and weighs 165 pounds. But she admires tenacity and points to never-say-die Michelle Akers as her model. "She's not gonna lose that ball," Fotopoulos says. "And if she does, you don't want to be between her and that ball."
The women of the United States National Soccer team have just completed a dizzying coast-to-coast tour, but their journey is only just beginning. The path to the Women's World Cup championship starts on Saturday (in Jersey, of all places) and it ends July 10 in the Rose Bowl exactly where the U.S. team's Nike-sponsored "Road to Pasadena" tour began. Whether the women's team can complete the circuit back to Cali remains to be seen, but the Americans are considered the best in the world. Still, there's more than one team in the tourney that can stall the U.S. before they get to their final destination (see Mathew Yeomans Women of the World).
Hoping to get between anyone and the ball is Fair, who, at 20, carries the least number of years and most number of tatoos on the squad (OK, OK . . . she just has two). This is also Fair's first World Cup. Though she was an alternate on the '96 Olympic squad, the UNC communications major she is the only woman on the squad who still has college eligibility left says she's had only the slightest taste of what to expect from a major tourney in front of home crowds.
"It was a little harder in '96," she explained. "I was 17 and still had to send those permission slips home for my mom to sign."
Hardly long in the tooth, Fair has already racked up 48 caps and got a few starts on the springtime tour. She's also versatile, having played forward for her club team and a good deal at midfield in college which, the National Team defender admits, she really likes.
"I don't know if I have so much of a striker mentality," she laughs. "I just like to run around." And she hopes that in 2001, after completing college next year and competing in the 2000 Olympics, there will be a professional women's league to run around in. "The timing could be perfect for me."
And for women's soccer in the United States, if the team lives up to everyone's lofty expectations. So it's time to hit the road again, after what Fotopoulos describes as "some tough losses" on the last trip, namely at the hands and feet of China, who were runners-up to the U.S. in the Atlanta Olympics. The two teams may very well meet again in this final. But first the U.S. needs to shift into high gear for the physically challenging Denmark and their first-round mystery matchups against Nigeria and Korea, about whom little is known.
"Each game is difficult," Fotopoulos says. "It's going to be a hard road."
And a long one. But if the Amerks get going and make it back to Pasadena, it'll be worth the trip.
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