U.S. Women: Changing of the Guard?

I would hate to be in Tony DiCicco's shoes.

The U.S. women's national team coach has some difficult choices to make in paring the U.S. squad down to 16 players for the Olympics. That's quite a drop from the 20-player roster that competed in the 1995 World Championship.

Six members of the team that finished third in Sweden last summer aren't in camp and are out of contention: Linda Hamilton retired, Sarah Rafanelli works at Nike, Jen Lalor's in school, Amanda Cromwell (the new UMBC coach) blew out her knee, Debbie Keller has missed camp because of a foot injury, and Saskia Webber is just out of the picture.

Given the limited number of players he can take, DiCicco won't have any room for sentiment when making the cuts. You can't take, or start, players based solely on what they've done in years past.

If that means cutting even a Michelle Akers, then do it. If it means taking a Jen Grubb, then do that. You just can't take a player whom you can't count on to play significant minutes. All the players DiCicco selects have to be able to contribute -- the team that takes the gold will have played five games in 12 days in the summer heat -- and, as he himself has said, all 16 players have to be ready to start.

Consequently, DiCicco has to be willing to want changes as the tournament goes on. In Sweden he was much more willing to bench a young Tiffany Roberts, who was in over her head, than veteran Carin Gabarra, who was suffering from back spasms, or Akers, who was not a factor in the semifinal loss to Norway because of a knee injury.

I can see why Akers started that game-- you have to at least see what she can do -- but DiCicco should have replaced her. Gabarra didn't do anything, but DiCicco didn't sub for her either.

DiCicco has already shown a glimpse of what he may have in mind for the starting 11 this summer. The team the U.S. used to beat Germany in its last two friendlies could very well be the lineup in the Olympics.

"It's what I feel, at this point, is a starting team," DiCicco said. "Not saying we're totally satisfied with everything."

The possible team:

Briana Scurry in goal;

Carla Overbeck, Brandi Chastain, Joy Fawcett on defense;

Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy, Shannon MacMillan, Tisha Venturini in midfield;

Tiffeny Milbrett, Mia Hamm and Cindy Parlow up front.

Gabarra may come off bench

This lineup does not include Akers, who has missed the last six friendlies because of a partial ligament tear in her knee, or Gabarra, who was a reserve against Germany.

Who else? Let's look at the problem areas:

The United States went to Sweden with the best three forwards in the world, but it should look different up front, except for Hamm, who is now the best U.S. player in '95.

Milbrett, the leading U.S. scorer in 1996, has played well enough to be a starter. When the U.S. plays its conventional 3-4-3 formation, either Gabarra or Parlow has started at center forward in Akers' stead. After a slow start, Parlow has come on of late, scoring twice in the last three games. The Soccer America Freshman of the Year is the most exciting player to come around in years. Only 17, she might make more of an impact at the 1999 World Championship but should definitely be at the Olympics.

Can the U.S. afford to take both Akers and Gabarra? Health problems -- Gabarra's back, Akers' knee and Epstein-Barr Syndrome -- have affected both players this past year. Gabarra was not herself in Sweden, where she didn't score a goal. Akers has only played in four of 11 pre-Olympic friendlies. Gabarra has played more than Akers lately and has done well coming on as a substitute.

As such, I could see taking Gabarra, for her punch off the bench and experience. When Akers returns -- probably April 20 against the Netherlands -- she still has time to get into playing shape.

"Michelle Akers is going to come back into the picture," DiCicco said. "Cindy Parlow and Carin Gabarra have had moments of brilliance where we just feel that they're the answer. And then other times their performances haven't been up to par."

Even if you take Akers and Gabarra, neither may start. Unless Milbrett or Parlow falls apart, Akers and Gabarra should be relegated to the bench.

Going into training camp, the defense was one of DiCicco's greatest concerns. The U.S. needed to find a fast marking back with enough skill to occasionally bring the ball up field.

Chastain is the perfect fit. Normally a striker, Chastain has displayed the traits of a good marking back. She has moved into the starting lineup with veterans Overbeck and Fawcett.

Thori Staples is fast but is not someone who can create. Her lack of skill on the ball has been readily apparent for a while. Combine that with her lack of playing time recently, and I don't see the U.S. bringing Staples.

Youngsters may fight for last spot

Staci Wilson is inexperienced but is perhaps the top man-marker in the country. She's a quick, tenacious player who starts when the U.S. goes to a 4-4-2.

Other options include high school seniors Grubb and Lorrie Fair. Grubb is a tough, physical player who provides great service out of the back. She probably has the edge on Fair as a defender, which might be the only position Grubb can play. But the quick Fair is more versatile -- she can also play outside midfielder -- improving her chances of making the final 16.

If you have Overbeck, Fawcett, Chastain and Wilson, you don't need Grubb. She might be the future, but there's no room for her now. The same is true of Fair, though her versatility might help her case.

In midfield, Foudy, Lilly and Venturini are holdovers from Sweden who are set as starters. MacMillan occupies the spot that Roberts and Fawcett filled in Sweden. MacMillan isn't a natural flank player but can do the job.

Roberts hasn't been a regular starter since the World Cup. The former teenage sensation was disappointing there but now seems more at ease. If needed, she could easily move to the back.

"She's definitely in our picture, but she's not in our starting lineup," DiCicco said. "She's a better player today than she was when she came in [to camp] Jan. 4. She's better on the ball, she makes better tactical decisions, and she's solid for us."

Perhaps the fewest questions come in goal. Mary Harvey has again proven herself to be a top-flight keeper and is pushing Scurry for the starting job. Tracy Noonan is the only other goalie at the residential training camp in Florida but doesn't look to break into the top two. You don't have room to take three. So Scurry and Harvey are in.

That's the starting 11, plus Harvey, Wilson, Akers, Gabarra and either Roberts or Fair. A reserve goalie, two forwards and two midfielder/defenders.

The United States should win the gold with that roster. It has enough talent to get by most teams even on a bad day.

But if DiCicco has to replace starters again because of injury or ineffectiveness and can't, or if the reserves just can't hack it, the U.S. might be looking at another third-place finish.

by Soccer America Associate Editor Dean Caparaz.

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