Chastain's removal from the U.S. team is an insult
Posted: Saturday June 25, 2005 2:56PM; Updated: Saturday June 25, 2005 6:48PM
Brandi Chastain showed she can still play when she helped lead the U.S. team to a gold medal in last summer's Athens Olympics.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Submit a comment or question for Michael.
So let's get this straight: Here once again stands Brandi Chastain, without a jersey, exposed for all the world to see.
And this time, it's the coach who ripped the shirt off her back?
In the wake of Chastain's forced retirement from the U.S. women's national soccer team she helped popularize, I'm sure many of you are asking two questions. First, has it really been six years since she revealed her sports bra while celebrating the team's 1999 World Cup championship at the Rose Bowl? And, second: Who the hell is Greg Ryan?
For those of you who don't follow these things all that closely (i.e. when Olympic gold medals or bare midriffs aren't involved), let me bring you up to speed. Ryan is the former assistant who took over the national team on an interim basis when his predecessor, April Heinrichs, got the long-overdue boot last February. At the time Ryan approached his new gig with all the enthusiasm of a dead salmon, telling one player, "I didn't want this position. I was happy being the assistant." But Ryan guided the team through the Algarve Cup in Portugal where, continuing a tradition they established under Heinrichs, driven U.S. players like fabulous forward Abby Wambach allowed their coach to ride to victory on their jersey tails.
In response, the unimaginative U.S. Soccer Federation offered Ryan the permanent job, and he seized it.
His first significant act was to fly up to San Jose earlier this month, meet with Chastain late at night at a hotel lobby restaurant and inform one of the most important woman athletes in American history that she wouldn't even get the opportunity to try out for his team.
It's MY decision, Ryan told Chastain, and I'M not changing it.
Dude, who made you king?
"Given what Brandi has done for this sport for the last 17 years, I feel like she's earned the right to at least be given a look," says Julie Foudy, the longtime national-team captain who retired last fall. "I think this is a big mistake."
Foudy is far too nice to call this despicable dis what it really is. This would not be unlike, say, Paula Abdul telling Aretha Franklin she couldn't compete for a spot on American Idol.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T? Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me.
Suddenly Ryan, a man whose previous head-coaching stint came at Colorado College (his teams went 40-28-6 from 1999-2002), is in position to tell the sixth-most capped player in U.S. history that she's not athletic or proficient enough even to compete for a spot on his team? That's essentially what he did, refusing to invite Chastain -- despite the protestations of numerous current and former national-team stalwarts -- to a recent 24-player tryout camp in advance of Sunday's match against Canada in Virginia Beach.
The first problem with Ryan's reasoning is that it's just plain wrong. She is good enough, as we saw in Athens last summer. At the Olympics, Chastain spent the first three games in Heinrichs' doghouse -- of the many players who had sought a coaching change, Chastain had been the most aggressive, and this reeked of payback -- and was only set free as an act of desperation. The U.S. team lacked offensive creativity and was in danger of failing to win a medal in the final meaningful competition for outgoing legends Foudy, Mia Hamm and Joy Fawcett. So Heinrichs put Chastain into her familiar spot on the back line, and she provided a spark that helped the U.S. win gold.
"She started in the Olympic final, and I know I'm biased, but I think she came into that tournament and was an incredibly valuable defender who brought a presence to the back line," Foudy says. "People are going to differ on how they see players, but many of my ex-teammates and I think she's extremely valuable."
For the sake of argument, let's say that Ryan, the new guru of U.S. soccer, doesn't view it that way. Chastain will be 39 before the next World Cup in 2007, and this coach apparently is committed to finding more youthful defenders at any cost.
If that's the case, why wouldn't he at least give her a chance to prove him wrong on the field? It's a question Ryan either couldn't or wouldn't answer during his meeting with Chastain.
Given the fractious relationship between Chastain and Heinrichs, and the fact that Ryan was Heinrichs' assistant for a little more than a year, this raises questions about his motives. Was he sticking it to a player he felt was disloyal to his former boss? Was he trying to make a statement -- "I'm the new sheriff in town, and if you don't like it get the hell out of this saloon," or something to that effect? Is he unwilling to have a player on his roster whose blatant popularity eclipses his own quest for recognition?
The fact is we don't know the answers to these hypothetical questions, and it's possible we never will. We do know that previously banished forward Tiffeny Milbrett, who ripped Heinrichs and the U.S. Soccer Federation upon her release from the national team early in 2004, has suddenly been welcomed back to the fold -- she's on the roster for the match against Canada, meaning she could see her first action for the U.S. in 16 months.
Meanwhile, Chastain, a woman who for the past 17 years has devoted a huge proportion of her waking hours to promoting her sport, isn't even allowed the dignity of announcing her retirement from international soccer on her own terms. Instead, her new coach decreed it in a conversation with a reporter, because, hey, that's how heads roll in the Realm of Ryan.
Never mind that Chastain's husband, longtime Santa Clara coach Jerry Smith, is a far more accomplished mentor than Ryan will ever be -- and is one of many men and women in this country more qualified to make such a decision. And never mind that having Chastain stick around in some capacity, even a largely symbolic one, would help sell a sport that blatantly needs it.
It's a lousy deal, but Chastain, as always, is trying to stay positive.
"I have loved soccer long before Greg Ryan became coach," she said last Wednesday, shortly before attending a signing for her autobiography, It's Not About the Bra (with co-author Gloria Averbuch, HarperResource Press). "I continue to love soccer today, and will do the same long after he and other coaches have come and gone. This situation doesn't change that one bit. That is why I am undaunted by this recent development. I have been through this once before, when Anson Dorrance cut me from the national team following the first World Championship in '91, and I sat out the '95 World Cup. Now, as then, I will continue to pull the bag of balls out of my car, put on my cleats and use everyday to improve my technique, fitness and overall game, for the day when I will be back on the field. I have seen this action plan work, and I am not afraid to see this as a challenge of spirit, character and hard work. In the meantime, I will do what I did then, which is play for the Sacramento Storm of the WPSL, and attempt to help that team win a championship. Also, I will stand as close to pitch without playing as you can get for ESPN2 and MLS on Soccer Saturdays, hopefully inspiring new fans, soccer die-hards and players alike to enjoy the greatness of our game."
As for Ryan, he has successfully announced his presence as the new man in charge. All we ask now is that Ryan, unlike Heinrichs before him, be judged like someone in his position would be in any other soccer-playing nation around the globe: Succeed-and with this ultra-talented U.S. squad, that means winning every important tournament you enter, or coming damned close -- and you get to keep your job, at least until the next big game.
Anything less, and someone bigger and tougher than you will rip that whistle right off your neck.