U.S. WOMEN: Tiffeny Milbrett 'can't pretend anymore,' steps away from national team

By Scott French
Senior Editor

Tiffeny Milbrett, the sprite striker who has scored 99 goals for the U.S. women's national team since debuting in 1991, has cut short her international career, unhappy with the style of play employed by the U.S. women.

Milbrett, 31, told Soccer America this week that a clash of philosophies with U.S. women's coach April Heinrichs had urged her decision, and that she ''can't pretend to be enjoying'' playing for U.S. women any longer.

She said she informed Heinrichs of her decision in December after nearly two months of introspection, much of it prodded by Clive Charles' death from prostate cancer in August.

''What kept coming up is I have such a different philosophy about the game than what April has and what the national team has,'' Milbrett said from her home in Portland, Ore. ''It's not fun anymore.''

Milbrett said she was not retiring, neither from soccer nor with the national team, but that she likely would not pull on a U.S. jersey again as long as Heinrichs is in charge.

''I can't say no [to playing for Heinrichs] 100 percent,'' she said, ''but our philosophies are so different, you know? I know how I feel out there.''

Asked if she would return if there is a coaching change following this summer's Athens Olympics, Milbrett said she was ''ready and willing to give a new coach a try.''

The U.S. forward prefers a freer, more creative style of play -- such as that encouraged by Charles, the former University of Portland coach and Milbrett's mentor and father figure -- over the U.S. women's more tactically sophisticated (and confining) brand of soccer, which values speed, athleticism and versatility.

Heinrichs, through a U.S. Soccer spokesman, declined to comment for this story at this time. She said she would address Milbrett's situation with the media following the Feb. 25-March 5 CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament in Central America. The U.S. team departed Friday for Costa Rica.

Finest female player

Milbrett, widely considered the world's finest female player in 2000 and 2001, is a speedy, agile forward with plenty of flair, expert at beating defenses and finishing chances, and far better in the air than her 5-foot-2 frame suggests. She scored 50 goals in 82 games for the U.S. women over a three-year span (1998-2000), then claimed the WUSA's first scoring title and MVP honors in 2001 after carrying the New York Power to the playoffs.

Milbrett struggled the past two years, first with exhaustion and then through Charles' illness and death. The exhaustion, a product of not taking enough time off following the 2001 season, manifested itself in a rough 2002 season with the Power, which finished last as she failed to score in a home game.

Milbrett and the Power improved last year, but Charles' battle with prostate cancer proved emotionally draining. Milbrett said her coach's death last August strengthened her resolve.

''[Charles' passing] rocked my world,'' Milbrett said. ''I remember getting a call from Clarena [Charles, Clive's wife] saying, 'There's not much time. We know it's the end. He wants you to get [to Portland] to say goodbye before it's too late.' I have to go up to his house to tell this man ... to tell him goodbye for the rest of my life. ... Something happened. He passed away not too much later, and, I don't know, something happened.

''[Death] affects everyone a little differently, and you never know until it happens. I don't know. Clive's death really made me, I don't know, strong in ways I hadn't been in a long time. It made me feel like, I don't know, it's time to stop wasting your time. I can't waste any more time.''

Milbrett had capped 2002 with an MVP performance at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the region's qualifier for last year's World Cup. She had scored seven goals in 180 minutes of action, including a U.S. record-tying five in a 9-0 romp over Panama in the final group game.

She started five of the first eight matches of 2003, scoring in the Four Nations victory over Norway, but she sat on the bench through two of the Americans' four Algarve Cup matches and started only two of the final 14 games of the year, one of them a post-World Cup friendly.

Critics charged the speedy Milbrett had lost a step and seemed to play without focus and, too often with the national team, without success. Milbrett didn't seem her best in the first four World Cup matches last fall, but glimpses of the old ''Millie'' were obvious late in the semifinal loss to Germany and during the third-place victory over Canada.

Milbrett saw another 90 minutes of action following the World Cup, playing one half in a 2-2 tie with Italy on Oct. 22 and another half in a 3-1 win over Mexico on Nov. 2 -- her final appearance.

Milbrett spent the next six weeks mulling over her future with the national team. When Heinrichs called in December to invite her into the pre-Four Nations training camp in Southern California, Milbrett told the coach she wouldn't be returning to the team -- at least not in the near future, not unless there were changes.

''This isn't about April Heinrichs,'' she said. ''It's about starting with Anson [Dorrance, coach of the U.S. women in 1986-94], continuing with Tony [DiCicco, coach in 1994-99], and now with April, it's always been the same philosophy of the game. I've had to forgo my philosophy, what I felt and what I knew, what I felt inside works for me as a player -- I had to forgo this for 12 years to fit into the national team. That's OK when you're young, when you've got a new career you're thankful and grateful for. But it can only last so long.

''This past year, this last four months, it really hit home. And then probably the catalyst was Clive's death, [but] I can't pretend anymore. I can't pretend to be enjoying this. I can't pretend I'm enjoying going out there and playing this style.

''I didn't feel [that with] the style that was being played with the national team that I was able to do my job, able to be a creative player and have the freedom I needed to play the game that I loved.''

Diminished role

Milbrett said she grew increasingly frustrated through 2003 as her role within the national team diminished and she heard nothing about her play from Heinrichs. Milbrett had been a starter in all but eight of the matches in which she'd played for the U.S. women from 1997 through last March, and when her name was no longer in lineup, she said, she wasn't told why.

''I was really disappointed in April when she never sat me down to talk to me to tell me she thought I was struggling,'' Milbrett said. ''I learned it from reading in the paper, from watching on TV. [When I saw it] I didn't know what the hell hit me. ...

''All this stuff built up. In my opinion, you have a veteran player who was never once talked to, and all of a sudden I find myself sitting -- not starting, [at times] sitting the whole game -- and never once being talked to.

''Let me make clear, this isn't about the minutes -- anyone wants minutes -- it's that I wasn't sat down and talked to by my coach and told in private what she felt about my game, [wasn't told] what she was thinking about doing with her veteran player. I found myself with a whole bunch of questions, a whole bunch of no-answers, and basically blaming myself: 'I really am that bad a player.' 'My legs aren't screwed on right anymore.'

''I think, gosh, as the year went on and on and on, I got more and more angry not knowing what's going on, what's happening to me.''

Straitjacket

Milbrett said she mostly is unhappy about how the strictures placed on her by the Americans' playing style. She said she disagreed with Heinrichs' approach to versatility, in which players are expected to be able to fulfill multiple roles in multiple systems.

''My philosophy about the game, for instance, is that you have players out there who really do different things,'' Milbrett said. ''You can't ask every player to do the same thing. That's why we have amazing midfielders, defenders, forwards and keepers. You can't ask them to be of the same mold.

''I am somebody who ... -- I'm not saying I'm perfect, but I need that freedom, that ability to make mistakes out there. Because there's a fine line between making a mistake or being brilliant.

''I don't think the game should be perfect. It's 95 percent mistakes out there -- you have to work with 10 players on your side and another 11 against you. It's a crazy, chaotic game. You have ideas, you have instincts, and one of the things that keeps cropping up [in my deliberations] is that I don't feel I was allowed to use my own instincts, to hear my own voice inside me and be able to make decisions [based] on that.

''There were times April demanded only a certain amount of touches could be used. Or said that we were playing too slow. That goes against my philosophy. I don't feel you can tell any player -- I mean, would you tell Thierry Henry how many touches he should take? You've got to give me that freedom, and I don't feel I was given that freedom.''

Different bird

Milbrett acknowledged that she is wired differently than her teammates -- ''I've known since I went to the national team when I was very young that I was a different bird,'' she said -- and that she has a unique perspective on the game. Much of it comes from her background. Whereas most of the U.S. women's team are the products of middle- and upper-middle-class suburbania, Milbrett grew up in a one-parent, working class family in Portland, Ore.

She followed the NASL's Portland Timbers, featuring Charles, as a child and began attending Charles' soccer camps, and those of other Timbers players, when she was 8. She joined Charles' FC Portland club at 16, then played for him at Portland, where she scored 103 goals in an All-American career. Charles, in 2002, said Milbrett had ''single-handedly turned our women's program, which was so average, into a Top 10 team.''

Charles allowed Milbrett considerable freedom with the Pilots, and she blossomed under his guidance. She made her debut with the U.S. women in '91, while at Portland, and made a breakthrough in 1995, when she came off the bench for an injured Michelle Akers at the Women's World Cup in Sweden and shared the team lead with three goals.

She scored twice at the 1996 Olympics, including the winner in the gold-medal victory over China, and was the top U.S. goalscorer in the 1999 Women's World Cup and 2000 Olympics, with three goals in each competition. She scored on a dramatic, stoppage-time header to force overtime in loss to Norway in the Sydney final.

From 1998 to 2002, Milbrett scored 62 goals in 99 games, but she netted only four in 18 matches in 2003.

After Milbrett turned down Heinrichs' invitation to last month's training camp, word from U.S. Soccer was that she was taking some time off. She'd endured an emotionally and physically demanding two years, and needed time to recover. Milbrett scoffed at the notion.

''Everybody talks about my recovery, about being exhausted,'' she said. ''Yeah, I was [exhausted], and I probably wasn't 100 percent physically, emotionally and mentally -- I mean, look at what I went through the last two and a half years. But that in and of itself this past year was not a factor in what I did for the national team every time I stepped out there, or in training, or when I stepped out there in the WUSA.

''This 'recovering' took on a life of its own. I'm not saying I didn't have ample time to recover, ample time to get to my best, I felt this year I did fine. When I stepped on the field for the national team, I was ready and able to make an impact, to score goals, to create chances.''

Sabbatical

Milbrett is considering playing in England during the WUSA's hiatus -- ''I'm trying to get hold of some contacts over there,'' she said -- or might suit up for a W-League or WPSL team, as many WUSA players, including some in the national team pool, are doing.

''I don't know what I'll do next,'' she said. ''What I'm calling this time period now is my 'sabbatical.' I feel energy I haven't felt in a very long time. I feel rejuvenated, excited, and here I am doing nothing. ...

''I don't even know what will happen with this season. I just know that every day I'm not there [with the national team], and every day I get to think about things -- really heal from Clive's death -- I'm getting time I need for myself.

''I'm just a little bit happier. I'm just a lot less stressed. I feel like I'm whole again.''

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