U.S. Soccer: The 17 women who blazed an amazing trail

The launch of the U.S. womenÆs national team in 1985 caught even the players by surprise

With the Olympic silver medal signifying both achievement and disappointment, the U.S. national womenÆs team will likely undergo dramatic change in the near future.

Michelle Akers stepped down on the eve of the Sydney Games and Carla Overbeck bid farewell afterward. Other goodbyes may be announced by Coach April Heinrichs as veterans are forced to give way to younger players.

Akers was the last link to the beginning of the national team program. She was 19 when she and 16 other players were plucked from a tournament in 1985. It was a markedly different experience from today.

They had just three days of practices ù some of them in a cow pasture ù and were issued hand-me-down menÆs practice uniforms that needed ôUSAö sewn on them the night before they left for Il Mundialito, the unofficial ôLittle World Cup,ö in Jesolo, Italy. They were paid $10 a day and given a new pair of cleats.

The 2000 Olympic team members received $5,000 monthly, plus $2,000 per game and bonuses for winning tournaments and certain matches leading up to the Games.

TheyÆve been on Wheaties boxes, several have lucrative endorsement contracts, and virtually all will play in the new pro league, the WUSA.

Yet without the acclaim or financial rewards, or perhaps because they never had them, the æ85 players in retirement have set a standard for passion and commitment to the game that will be hard to match.

Fifteen years ago, after the last game of the National Sports Festival tournament in Baton Rouge, La., the first national team was announced as the players sat on the field.

ôWhen my name was called, I wasnÆt sure I heard it right ù until my teammates jumped on me,ö said Lori Henry, who is taking a break from coaching soccer to get a masterÆs degree in education. ôTo that point, I was just feeling lucky to be there.ö

Mike Ryan, a Seattle foundry worker, was selected coach. Two weeks later, they left for American womenÆs first international competition. Despite the lack of preparation, the team believed their time, and that of the womenÆs soccer, had arrived.

ôOpening day was gorgeous,ö said Kim Wyant, the goalkeeper. ôThe Italian crowds were great, though it took us awhile to realize that when they chanted, æOo-sa, oo-sa,Æ they were saying, æUSA.Æ ô

Ruth Harker, also a keeper, said: ôYou had USA on the back of your shirt, and when you played in front of thousands of people like we did, you knew you were part of something big.ö

FAN FAVORITES. The Italian fans were indeed smitten by the young Americans, all of whom were under 25. Despite limited success on the field, losing three games and tying a fourth, the teamÆs enthusiasm enchanted the crowds.

ôWe were just so happy to be there,ö recalled Tucka Healy, a forward from Cal. ôWhile watching the Denmark-Italy game, we grabbed an Italian flag and rushed to the sidelines, where we led a cheer. They were totally shocked that weÆd cheer another team.ö

They had their fun, partying in the resortÆs discos, often with players from the other teams, and enjoying the beach. It was a festive atmosphere and a dream come true.

But soccer at the international level was a rude awakening.

ô[The Italian players] were cheaters,ö said defender Denise Bender. ôActually, we were naive. The Italians were very physical and rough players.ö

And they were sly. They scored the lone goal in the first game after being called for a foul. But instead of allowing the Americans the kick, the Italians knocked the ball through while the refereeÆs back was turned, according to one account. They quickly scored on a breakaway while the Americans stood stunned.

Ryan, the coach, is still a steelworker in Seattle and still has his Irish brogue. He was chosen based on his success with the Tacoma (Wash.) Cozars, who had won several national club championships. Half the U.S. team had played for him.

Ryan had a temper, and several players were puzzled by his tactical approach to the game.

ôHe got mad at me for shooting with my left foot instead of running around the ball to strike it with my right foot,ö recalled Pam Cornell (nee Baughman), who was the ISAA Player of the Year after helping George Mason to the 1985 NCAA title.

Others questioned his ability to motivate the countryÆs best female players. But few doubted his passion.

ôHe was very hard to play for,ö said Denise Merdich (nee Boyer), also a Cozars player. ôI donÆt think he meant to come across as he did. If you could get past that gruff outside, he had such a vision.ö

ôHis passion was to have the national team actually play,ö said Roger Rogers, the teamÆs manager (and now editor of WomenÆs Soccer World), referring to earlier years when teams were named but never played. ôBut passion got in his way.ö

Ryan admits his failings, but heÆs still bitter that after the Italian trip he was unceremoniously removed as national team coach and replaced by Anson Dorrance, who had begun to build, at North Carolina, the most successful collegiate womenÆs program in history.

ôI yelled a lot,ö Ryan said. ôBut I wanted to leave a dynasty behind. I believed in them from Day 1. I told them they were the future coaches of the nation.ö

He recites an Irish poem:

ôGo not where the road may lead, But leave a trail where others may follow.ö

STILL KICKING. Virtually all the æ85 players have coached and most still play competitively, but they lament that youth players seem to lack their commitment and passion and are unwilling to ôleave a trail.ö

ôI was out there to win the war,ö said Emily Pickering, who now sells insurance in Gaithersburg, Md., and continues to play despite two knee surgeries. ôToday there are incredible players, but they raise their hand to take themselves out of a game. You canÆt leave the battlefield.ö

Merdich says too many of todayÆs players ôwant nice uniforms, but they never want to work for it. They want to be Mia Hamm, but they donÆt want to be at practice.ö

Once the game no longer provides some rewards, they stop playing, according to Cindy Gordon, who has won an over-30 national title. But she noticed that her over-30 team was fast becoming a ônearly-40ö squad.

ôThere was a gap for seven or eight years,ö Gordon said. ôMaybe theyÆre burned out.ö

The æ85 players seem still on fire.

ôThere was a grit about [players from the early years], a hardness,ö Akers said. ôWe all love the game so much. ItÆs not about anything else. TodayÆs players sometime get so much from the game that they lose the pure joy of it.ö

Ann Germain (nee Orrison) played in high school but not college because Virginia, where she went to earn an engineering degree, did not have a womenÆs soccer program. She has been a volunteer youth coach in northern Virginia.

Cornell coaches her two sonsÆ team. Stacey Enos is coach of the Utah State womenÆs team. Harker conducts goalie clinics. Linda Gancitano coaches a middle-school team where she teaches. Merdich trains youth players. Kathy Ridgewell-Williams is assistant director of a soccer club and general manager of an indoor facility. Lori Sweeney (nee Bylin) and Tara OÆSullivan (nee Buckley) coach their childrenÆs teams.

Wyant is director of soccer operations for the Long Island Lady Riders Club and goalkeeper for the clubÆs W-League team. Bender and Healy have competed for national championships on over-30 teams and coached youth teams.

Their brief national team experience may have been the catalyst for their continued commitment. Sharon McMurtry, a forward who coaches a girls high school team in Nevada, says that first tournament had a profound impact on her. She recalls being so emotional during opening ceremonies that she couldnÆt sing the U.S. anthem.

ôI was so proud to be an American,ö she said, pausing as her voice choked. ôBest feeling I ever had.ö

That feeling, not fame and fortune, has sustained the original national team players.

by Bob Griendlin, a free-lance writer based in Fairfax, Va.

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