While in his mid-teens, living in 1960s Connecticut, Tony DiCicco fell in with a good group of kids – soccer players.
"I had been a baseball and football player," says DiCicco, who was the quarterback on his freshman high school football team. "I played a lot of basketball. Baseball was my first love."
But his friends urged him to try out for the soccer team and DiCicco acquiesced.
"Looking back, it was a great decision," says DiCicco, who turned into one of the most influential figures in American soccer.
"Soccer for me was a lot of fun," he says. "I think I became a goalkeeper because I was behind everybody else."
DiCicco went from goalkeeper, to goalkeeper coach, to head coach. He guided the U.S. women to the gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, when women's soccer debuted at the Games. Three years later, with DiCicco still at the helm, the USA hosted and won the 1999 Women's World Cup, the event that cemented women's soccer in the nation's mainstream consciousness.
"1996, in my mind, was every bit as important and enjoyable as '99," DiCicco says. "Everybody remembers '99 because '96 wasn't televised. I think the best soccer game ever in the women's game was the '96 final against China [a 2-1 U.S win]. It was an incredibly well-played game by both teams, playing their best soccer. Attractive soccer. Possession soccer."
The 1996 Olympic performance also catapulted the U.S. women into celebrity status.
"As a turning point," says DiCicco, "1996 was incredibly important. That's when Mia Hamm became such an important sports figure. The players started to build a following. It culminated in '99. I'm not sure if we ever got back to the level of '99, but some of the young players we have now, they're pretty exciting."
DiCicco's 1996 triumph came less then two years after he replaced Anson Dorrance at the helm. Unlike Dorrance, who coached the nation's top collegiate team, North Carolina, DiCicco's head-coaching experience had been limited to high school and amateur ball stints.
DiCicco had played at Springfield College and with two ASL clubs, the Connecticut Wildcats and Rhode Island Oceaneers. In 1981, he founded Soccer Plus Inc. Speciality stores and Soccer Plus Goalkeeper Schools. A decade later, he became a U.S. Soccer Federation keeper coach and he was Dorrance's assistant when the USA won the first Women's World Cup in 1991.
DiCicco stepped down after the magnificent 1999 triumph to spend more time with his family — he and wife, Diane, have four sons — after compiling a 103-8-8 record. In addition to running his camps, coaching youth soccer and penning a book ("Catch Them Being Good"), DiCicco became Chief Operating Officer of the Women's United Soccer Association and also served as its commissioner during the league's three-year lifespan (2001-03).
Next spring, women's pro soccer returns with the seven-team Women's Professional Soccer (WPS). DiCicco, also coach of U.S. U-20 team that competes at the U-20 Women's World Cup in Nov. 20-Dec. 7 in Chile, is head coach of the Boston Breakers.
DiCicco says his WUSA work was a great learning experience, but he's happy to be on the sidelines this time.
"Building a team from scratch, weighing all the options and directions you can take – that's exciting," DiCicco says.
DiCicco believes the second incarnation of women's pro soccer will offer a higher quality than the WUSA.
"It will be similar, but it will be better out of the gate," he says. "When we started the WUSA, there were maybe 30 to 40 amateur clubs around the country where women could keep playing after their college careers. Now, between the WPSL and the W-League, there are over 100."
DiCicco also points out that the expansion of the U.S. youth national team program created a far deeper pool of players with international experience.
The USA won the first U-20 Women's World Cup, in 2002, then finished third in 2004 and fourth in 2006.
"Coaching the U-20s is a great opportunity to be back with the national team program," says DiCicco, "and perhaps my greatest coaching challenge yet. I'm very pleased with my players, but this will be no cakewalk."
(This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue ofSoccer Americamagazine.)