April Heinrichs accomplishes what her predecessors failed to do in four attempts
Winning the Algarve Cup for the first time wasn't the only thing on April Heinrichs' agenda.
Equally as important as the 1-0 victory over Norway in the final was the progress the players have made since their hasty debut against Norway in February, days after ending their strike.
Still, the victory was mighty sweet. The Americans beat the archrival Norwegians, who had won both tests in Florida. And they won the prestigious Algarve Cup, played each winter in Portugal's winter resort area, for the first time in five tries.
Anson Dorrance and Tony DiCicco both led the United States to World Cup titles, but it failed to win the Algarve Cup in 1994, '95, '98 and '99.
"It was wonderful," Heinrichs said. "We'd been asking ourselves, 'How can we win these big tournaments and not the Algarve Cup, which is arguably the third most important tournament in the world?'"
Brandi Chastain was the heroine from the spot yet again, converting a ninth-minute penalty kick with her right foot for the game's lone goal. Mia Hamm earned the penalty when she was taken down in the Norway penalty area by goalkeeper Bente Nordby.
"It's great to win any tournament," Heinrichs said. "Learning is a priority, but there's also a focus on winning. I'll put an emphasis on player and team development before the Olympics, then hit the Olympics focused solely on winning."
Here's what she learned at the Algarve Cup:
Goalkeepers. Former North Carolina star Siri Mullinix raised her stock with shutouts of Portugal, Sweden and Norway.
"Siri played marvelously," Heinrichs said. "In all fairness, Siri and Lorrie Fair played critical roles in the final."
Mullinix only made five saves against Norway but came off her goal line numerous times to clean out balls that could have become shots.
UNC keeper Jen Branam played the whole way against Denmark and gave up the only U.S. goal allowed in the 2-1 win over the Danes. But the 19-year-old Californian otherwise did well.
Defenders. World Cup starters Joy Fawcett and Kate Sobrero and newcomer Danielle Slaton made the biggest impressions on the backline. Fawcett displayed the sophistication that made her the best defender in the world in the mid-1990s and showed improvement in her defensive heading ability, while the younger Sobrero wowed Heinrichs with her speed and strength.
Slaton, the Santa Clara sophomore, shone at left back.
"She played great balls forward and has good speed," Heinrichs said.
Chastain and Carla Overbeck, the other returning starters from the World Cup, were steady.
Overbeck was hampered by a hyperactive thyroid. The U.S. captain received medication for the condition just half an hour before the team left for Portugal and had trouble adjusting to it.
"It's a tremendous battle for her right now," Heinrichs said. "She pulled herself out of a couple of games. She couldn't breathe."
Heinrichs liked Christie Pearce's "growth" at right back.
Midfielders. Fair normally plays in the back, but the versatile player impressed as a central midfielder in Portugal. She filled in admirably for Michelle Akers, who did not make the trip due to nasal surgery.
"Fair really does have an Aker-esque ability to play the ball with both feet and all surfaces of her feet," Heinrichs said. "She has the ability to change the point of attack. One of things we were concerned about was what sort of heading presence [the 5-3 Fair] would give us, but she was very competitive in the air."
Shannon MacMillan was the other story in midfield. She languished on the bench during DiCicco's fascination with the 4-3-3 formation, which didn't utilize outside midfielders. But she has blossomed on the right side of midfield in Heinrichs' 4-4-2 formation. Her 40-yard strike against Denmark completed a come-from-behind win.
"It was a phenomenal goal," Heinrichs said. "A wing midfield position really suits her speed and her quickness. I think she's also matured a little bit, probably in the last year. She's playing both sides of the game, both in the defense and in the attack."
Sara Whalen, who like Fair is normally confined to the defense, was also effective on the right side of midfield.
Kristine Lilly, the best wing midfielder in the world back when the United States played a 3-4-3 formation, flourished on the left side.
Strikers. Hamm and Tiffeny Milbrett were outstanding up front, while Penn State freshman Christie Welsh continued to show that she belongs at the international level.
Cindy Parlow's play was encouraging. The World Cup starter has been slowed by a hamstring injury and has not completely returned to game shape. But her hat trick against Portugal and her defensive contributions in subsequent games caught Heinrichs' eye.
"She was coming off an injury and was behind in terms of fitness and sharpness but was eager to get back into it and pick up her level," Heinrichs said. "She made two marvelous saves [with her head] in the Denmark game and the Sweden game."
by Soccer America associate editor Dean Caparaz
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