The right pitch
Replacing Milbrett with MacMillan on corner keyed U.S.
Posted: Friday July 02, 1999 01:22 AM
By Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated
WASHINGTON -- Soccer is surely the only sport in the world in which a knuckleball is a fastball.
Confused? Let me explain, because it was the reason why the U.S. was able to pull of the biggest play of its tournament in Thursday's 3-2 win against Germany.
With the game tied 2-2 midway through the second half, U.S. midfielder Shannon MacMillan came trotting onto the field as a sub. The Americans had earned a corner kick on the right side, and MacMillan ran toward her spot near the edge of the penalty box. Or so she thought. Forward Tiffeny Milbrett, who was supposed to take the corner, whistled over to her, "Hey Mac, you've got fresher legs! You take it!"
This was a smart move. Replacing Milbrett with MacMillan was like bringing in a fireballing reliever for a change-up pitcher. All night long, Milbrett had been taking slow, curving corners. MacMillan, on the other hand, has the hardest shot on the team because she hits the ball straight on, without any spin. The result is a knuckleball -- and a fastball, or at least a much faster ball than Milbrett's.
Enter defender Joy Fawcett. On U.S. corner kicks, Fawcett's job is to station herself by the goalkeeper and pop away from her by the near post. She is hardly the first option -- more like the third or the fourth -- but this time she got free. "On previous corners the goalkeeper had blocked the ball over my head," Fawcett explained. "My goal was to make sure I went to the ball so she couldn't get there first."
The Germans couldn't have expected that MacMillan would actually try to power the ball into Fawcett's sliver of free space. Milbrett couldn't have done it. But Mac the Knife did anyway, skulling the ball like a six-iron chip on the golf course. "My ball is such a driven ball that it doesn't give players the time to get set," she would say. "For me to step up and drive one caught them off guard."
Keep in mind that this was MacMillan's first touch of the game. "I was thinking, Just keep the ball in bounds," she said. The ball traced a line straight to Fawcett's head, and at that point she faced the difficult task of redirecting the ball with her head to the left side of the goal. At least it looked difficult. Fawcett said it wasn't. "Mac's got the hardest ball on the team, and that helps because I don't have to do much to it," she explained. "All I have to do is make contact."
Fawcett hit it perfectly, and that was the game. But it never would have happened had U.S. coach Tony DiCicco not inserted MacMillan, his secret weapon with the blazing knuckleball.
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