Last season is little more than a laugh to the New York Power, Tiffeny Milbrett was saying. It was a horrible campaign, sure, defined by injury, defensive ineptitude and lots of defeat, but what does that have to do with now?
A new coach, lots of new players and a new attitude have made New York a, well, new team heading into the WUSA's third season, which starts April 5. Tom Sermanni, the Scotsman who takes charge after two seasons as San Jose coach Ian Sawyers' chief assistant, sensed it when the Power's preseason camp opened at the beginning of March.
''There's a real enthusiasm around the place, which is pleasing,'' Sermanni said in a gentle brogue. ''To be fair, you expect that in preseason, but after the difficulty of last year, I was not sure how the players would come in.''
That had been settled, it turned out, last fall, during the Power's offseason camp. Sermanni, Australia's coach at the 1995 Women's World Cup, quickly won his players over with his knowledge and passion for the game, positive attitude and gentle touch.
''Different class,'' Milbrett said. ''Tom came in, and in two days this was a different team, you know?''
It's a far different team five months later. Sermanni has been filling holes and strengthening his squad all over the field, a must after the Power won just three games while surrendering 62 goals in 21 matches last year.
Ten players - representing nearly 40 percent of New York's starts in 2002 - have departed, including Norwegian midfielder Linda Ormen (loaned to Asker), Chinese goalkeeper Gao Hong (traded to Washington), midfielder Jen Lalor (traded to San Diego) and defender Ronnie Fair (waived). Seven new faces, all potential starters, arrived through a series of trades, the acquisition of two of Sermanni's former Aussie charges and a productive college draft.
FRESH START. Australian captain Cheryl Salisbury will anchor the back line, which will be aided by a healthy Christie Pearce and the addition of second-round draft choice Lauren Orlandos and San Diego pick-up Margaret Tietjen. Sermanni thinks defensive midfielder Shannon Boxx, also from the Spirit, may be the best uncapped American player. Carly Smolak, another from San Diego, is battling Saskia Webber for the No. 1 goalkeeper job.
First-round draft choice Christie Welsh provides Milbrett a big, mobile partner up front. Joanne Peters, brought into the Australian national team at 17 by Sermanni, is a dynamic attacker out of midfield. A breakthrough campaign from Norwegian midfielder Anita Rapp would enhance the attack.
''It just feels like it's such a fresh start with things. I feel a lot more rejuvenated,'' said Milbrett, who has scored 26 of 63 Power goals the first two years. ''Everyone's really relaxed, and when you have people who are relaxed and who feel they can be themselves, they can play through their instincts or what they've been taught to do. That, to me, is the only way to play the game - to play any sport.''
Questions remain. Will Milbrett and Welsh, a four-time All-American from Penn State, mesh as an attacking tandem? Can Rapp and Boxx bounce back from subpar 2002 campaigns? Is Orlandos ready to compete against the caliber of attacking players in the WUSA? Can Tietjen break through as her twin, Jen, did last year at Philadelphia? Does the Power have the talent to compete with Carolina and Philly and Washington?
New York already has lost midfielder Sara Whalen for the season - she developed an infection following last July's anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction; another surgery awaits this summer. Defender-midfielder Kristy Whelchel, who tore an ACL during the offseason, will miss most of the campaign. Although the Power will receive roster relief, both will count against the team's salary cap.
''We are at a disadvantage,'' Sermanni acknowledges. ''You just have to go on. We can't do anything about it. There's no point worrying about things you can't really change. On the positive side, one player's misfortune - or two players' - is an opportunity for someone else.''
TOTALLY DIFFERENT. The Power needs no more inspiration than what the Carolina Courage pulled off last year, transforming itself from worst-in-show to WUSA champion.
''I heard somebody say last year that if they heard 'worst to first' one more time, they were going to scream,'' New York general manager Susan Marenoff said. ''I hope to hear those words at the end of the year.''
It's nothing the players are focused on, and Sermanni says he doesn't ''tend to talk so much about last year,'' that he plans to ''talk about what we need to do this year to be successful.'' Not that he doesn't think about last year.
''Coming off the season they had last year can make things more delicate, in the sense if things go wrong, it's a here-we-go-again kind of thing,'' he said. ''There's potential for that to happen. ... If I do my job properly, and the players do their job properly, I don't think that will happen.''
Last year isn't on Milbrett's mind.
''First off, what you've got to understand,'' she stressed, ''is that we're two totally different teams. I don't think anyone is thinking back to next season. We're not the same players or the same people. We're the same faces that were on that team, but we're not the same people or players inside. None of our goals are related to last year.
''We can look back and have a laugh, like we did the other day. [We were talking about] when we beat Philly [last July] - it seemed like our first win in 150 games, and it felt like we'd won the World Cup.
''We can look back, have a good laugh.''
by Soccer America Senior Editor Scott French