Work in Sports
Heinrichs, 1 v. 1
MELBOURNE -- In circumstance and in style, new U.S. women's soccer coach April Heinrichs is a lot like Steve Mariucci, her counterpart with the San Francisco 49ers. Both are young (Heinrichs is 36, Mariucci a youthful 45). Both are dynamic leaders who've reached their sport's highest levels earlier than anyone had expected. And both have had to follow in the extremely large footsteps of two world champions. (For Heinrichs, it's Anson Dorrance and Tony DiCicco; for Mariucci, Bill Walsh and George Seifert).
Such comparisons are never exact, of course, but maybe this will give you a better understanding of the immense challenge Heinrichs faces: namely, to continue winning world titles, and to do so without having to go through the lean, loss-heavy rebuilding period that Mariucci has endured of late.
With her squad's Olympic opener against Norway looming Thursday night, I met up with Heinrichs Wednesday morning at the team hotel here. Some of the highlights:
One: "Even though we won the World Cup last summer, these women still want more. My erroneous assumption when I took the job is that they would be fat and happy, having done all the banquet tours and everything. What I found is that they want another challenge."
"We think extremely highly of China and their technical ability," Heinrichs says. "It's so difficult to strip them of the ball. They're very robotic in that they don't ever seem to show emotion. That's difficult for us, because you want to see a team get down now and then, and you don't see that with them.
"Norway is much more American-like. They're willful, they're physical. They know their strengths and they play to them. They try to keep the ball in front of them, and they try to hammer everything that comes through in terms of physical tackles."
In 1988, after coaching Ellis's daughter, Jill, Heinrichs left William & Mary to work with Ellis as a coaching consultant for youth teams in the Washington D.C. area. "I grew up playing for Anson and thinking Anson's way was the only way," Heinrichs says. "Then I worked with John, and it was like, here's a different way to coach. Here's Anson" -- she holds her hands in a regimented, regal way. "Here's John" -- and now she starts moving her hands frantically. "That suits me far more than trying to emulate Anson."
With Ellis, Heinrichs says, "I was a really bad coach my first year , just because I had a competitive edge to me as a player that doesn't translate well as a coach. But I remember when John put his arms around me after about a month or two and said, 'Someday you're going to be the national team coach.' That was the first time I ever said, 'I think I'd like to do that.'"
"The coaching staff did sensitivity training in February, and that was one of the last questions after three hours. They said, Go around the room and tell us something about you nobody knows. I wrote that I have a sense of humor."
"We want to prove we're the best team in the world," Heinrichs says. "That's the thing about athletics. Once you do it, you have to do it again."
That's the challenge, of course, and as Mariucci has shown in the NFL, it's an awfully difficult thing to do.
Sports Illustrated staff writer Grant Wahl is covering the Olympic soccer
competition in Australia. Check back each day for his behind-the-scene reports.
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