Work in Sports
Future is bright
Optimistic outlook for soccer teams despite no golds
SYDNEY, Australia -- So there I was on Friday night, waiting for Chilean superstar Ivan (Bam Bam) Zamorano to walk through the interview area, waiting to show off my Spanish and ask him a question: "¿Estaba sorprendido por la calidad de los estadounidenses?" (Were you surprised by the quality of the Americans?)
Silly me. Out came Zamorano, whose team had just beaten the U.S. for the bronze medal. He had looked like an engaging guy during Chile's pre-game national anthem, which he belted out with more enthusiasm than any athlete I've ever seen. (Watch him sometime. It's fun.) But now he stormed past, emitted a guttural snort and slammed the door, blowing off the media altogether.
Ivan, babe, your team won tonight! You scored two goals! You won the Golden Boot!
I tell this story because it puts into perspective what happened one day earlier in the exact same place. After losing the gold-medal game to Norway in the most heart-stopping way imaginable, a sudden-death golden goal, the U.S. women didn't run from the media. One by one they came out, their eyes bloodshot from crying, and answered all our questions, the good ones and the tough ones and the dumb ones.
Is this the end of an era? Did you get jobbed by the ref on that handball? Do you wish you'd had a different goalkeeper in there? And, oh, yes, how does it feel to be a role model?
Then an amazing thing happened. Nobody pointed fingers. Nobody blamed the referee. Nobody pulled a Zamorano. It was a performance every bit as revealing as the final itself, which was a classic even before Tiffeny Milbrett's miraculous game-tying goal with 15 seconds left in regulation.
The next day I talked to several of the players again. Some of them had seen the replay of the final goal, had seen Norway's Dagny Mellgren illegally hit the ball with her left arm before shooting it past Siri Mullinix. "Won't do us any good to complain now," one said. "She's the best referee in the women's game," explained another. And I told myself that if I could have a fraction of their equanimity the next time I get screwed, I'd be a better (and no doubt healthier) man.
While we're on the subject of American males, it would be good to point out a few things about the U.S. men's surprising run to the semifinals. Sure, it wasn't quite the storybook ending folks had hoped for. Yes, the Yanks finished with a mediocre one win, two losses and three ties. And, yes, the overly conservative, often baffling lineup decisions by coach Clive Charles prevented his team from reaching its full potential -- and raised serious questions about why the U.S. Soccer Federation hired him in the first place. (As a reward for being an assistant on the disastrous 1998 World Cup team?)
And yet anyone who watched all six of the American men's games -- especially their pre-Sydney tour -- had to come away feeling bullish about the future of U.S. soccer. Only one team, Spain, convincingly outplayed the Americans, who deserved a victory against eventual gold medalist Cameroon in their first-round game, a 1-1 tie. What's more, players like Chris Albright, Josh Wolff, John O'Brien, Ben Olsen and Landon Donovan showed a willingness to take on -- and actually beat -- defenders one-on-one, a skill that has been painfully absent at the senior level. (Are you listening, Cobi Jones and Eddie Lewis ?)
As a result, you can expect to see at least a few of the above-mentioned names (plus defender Danny Califf ) on a U.S. World Cup qualifying roster, and sooner than you might think. Does anybody doubt, for example, that Wolff and O'Brien could hold their own in next week's crucial qualifier against Costa Rica? Or that Donovan, Albright and Califf are ready to tear it up against Barbados next month? Not me. And we may just get to find out.
As for the women's team, we're left contemplating what many people see as a murky future. Will coach April Heinrichs start from scratch and dump the veterans? How many vets will retire? And how will the start of WUSA next April affect the national team? For that matter, will Heinrichs still be the coach?
Well, I can answer the last one with a definite yes. Heinrichs is in the first year of a four-year deal. As for the other questions, look for detailed answers in my story in the next SI for Women, but for now I'll leave it at this: Only Carla Overbeck and Michelle Akers have retired from the international game. Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy and Mia Hamm are all still in their 20s, and who retires in their 20s except Alexi Lalas? Besides, name me a better defender in the world right now than 32-year-old Joy Fawcett. Can't do it? Neither can I.
In the three years before the next Women's World Cup we'll inevitably see a different national team, and WUSA will no doubt expose a few well-known players and introduce us to others. But you know what? I don't buy this stuff about the Olympics being the last big occasion for the vets, and I think WUSA will do more to prolong careers than shorten them. After all, players will be able to live at home, stay in game shape and avoid the hated six-month-long residency camps. In fact, I'd argue that no fewer than eight of the 11 gold-medal-game starters will still be in the Americans' starting lineup a year from now.
In the meantime, of course, there's plenty to look forward to soccer-wise, from World Cup qualifying to MLS Cup to the start of WUSA. As these Olympics have plainly shown, it's an exciting time to be following soccer in the United States.
Over and out from Sydney.
Sports Illustrated staff writer Grant Wahl covered the Olympic soccer competition for the magazine and CNNSI.com.