Michelle AkersÆ Retirement: End of an Epoch.

BY SCOTT FRENCH Michelle Akers' not unexpected announcement earlier this month that her playing days were behind her brings to an end the most significant career in women's soccer, one that may never be matched. Akers' dominance of the sport, bookmarked by the Americans' triumphs in the 1991 and 1999 Women's World Cups, was nearly total. She was a complete player who combined skill, strength, size and savvy, gargantuan effort and a physical dimension no other player has approached. Nobody battled as hard as Akers, a sublime finisher (with 12 goals, the record, in WWC play), gifted playmaker and inspirational figure whose every action was completed with immense class and graciousness. Akers' career defines women's soccer in America: ò Her debut, in 1985, came in the Americans' second match. She scored, of course. ò She emerged as the world's finest player at the '91 WWC, where she won the Golden Boot as leading scorer, and scored the decisive goal, to nail down the title. ò She overcame the debilitating effects of chronic fatigue syndrome to help the Americans to Olympic gold in 1996. ò Her gritty midfield performance in '99, characterized by an exhaustive effort in the final, best defined -- better, yes, than Brandi's bra -- the Americans' success. Her scoring feats are legend. In 1990-91, she netted 48 goals -- in 36 matches. Her career totals -- 104 goals (one of four players beyond the century mark) in 153 games -- would have been far, far greater if not for health problems. It is perhaps not coincidence that Akers was on the field when the United States captured its three major (WWC, Olympics) championships, and that she was missing or at far less than full strength for the failures in 1995 and 2000. In the '95 WWC in Sweden, Akers was hurt in the opener and didn't return until the semifinal loss to Norway. A shoulder injury forced her international retirement just before the 2000 Sydney Olympics. She spent the WUSA season on the league's injured-reserve list and had planned to make her debut next season. But her ailing shoulder -- reinjured while high-fiving fans in '99 and again in a pre-Sydney friendly -- led to her decision to quit. "At the time I stepped down from the U.S. national team," Akers said, "my body had had it and my heart was telling me it was time to wrap it up." Her recent fifth shoulder surgery, she said, "pretty much helped me decide that it was time to move on and pursue" other projects. Prime among them is Soccer Outreach International, an organization that uses soccer to provide a foundation from which children can lead meaningful, productive lives. Akers' departure from the soccer field has been expected for some time. That she fought as long as she did was incredible; that her performance, even in the worst of times, rarely wavered was nearly incomprehensible. There are certainly other heroes in the women's game -- from Mia to Tiffeny to Brandi and so on -- and players with enormous talent will emerge from each generation. But it's likely we'll never see another Michelle Akers, or anybody like her, again.
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