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Akers of respect, DiCicco for a day

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Posted: Thursday July 01, 1999 01:54 PM


Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl will answer your Women's World Cup questions weekly. Click here to send a question.

WASHINGTON -- If it were possible to respect U.S. midfielder Michelle Akers any more than I already did, I do now. On Tuesday I had dinner with my friends Deena Maerowitz and Joel Samuels . Deena, like Akers, suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome. Her whole life has been turned upside down by CFS. She can only work from 9 to 2 each day before struggling home, exhausted. She suffers excruciating migraine headaches. Sometimes she can't even make it up the stairs to her third-floor apartment. "It's like walking in molasses," she says. "I hit a wall, and it feels like a can't move any farther."

Keep in mind that Deena doesn't try to play 90 minutes of world-class soccer three times a week, running as many as four miles every game. Akers, quite clearly, is a marvel. "I can't imagine how she does it," Deena says. Nor can I. Good luck to both Deena and Michelle in their fights against CFS.

Before I predict the outcome of Thursday's U.S.-Germany quarterfinal, allow me one question: Where were my props after I almost aced the U.S.'s 7-1 victory over Nigeria last week? (If you'll recall, I predicted a 6-2 U.S. win after an early Nigeria goal.) I forgive each and

every one of you, but you'll have no excuse for not congratulating me after the U.S. beats Germany 2-0. Germany has the kind of organized defense that gives the Americans trouble, so look for a scoreless first half, followed by an early second-half goal for the U.S. and another one in garbage time.

On to the bag ...

Now that the U.S. has played three games, a number of you would-be Tony DiCicco s have suggested changes in the Americans' starting lineup. Some of them make sense ( John from Parsippany, N.J. , wants to see Shannon MacMillan at forward), and some don't. ( William Wallace of Charlotte, N.C. , thinks Cindy Parlow would be a good replacement for Akers in defensive midfield.)

If I were the coach, this would be my starting lineup:

Goalkeeper: Briana Scurry . No contest here. Scurry doesn't get much work in the goal thanks to the U.S. defense, but when she does she can be a game-saver. For evidence, check out her two successive body blocks of point-blank North Korean shots on Sunday.

Defenders: Kate Sobrero and Joy Fawcett in the central defense, with Brandi Chastain and Sara Whalen on the outside.

My big change here would be yanking captain Carla Overbeck from the center, moving Fawcett from the outside and inserting Whalen. Why? Overbeck, 31, has obviously lost her fastball. A rock in the past, she has become too slow and unreliable, a giveaway goal waiting to happen. Her misplay in the North Korea match should have allowed the Koreans to tie the game at one. Their shot hit the crossbar, but any future U.S. opponent won't miss.

Fawcett showed she can play central defense against North Korea, and Sobrero is more or less steady in the middle as long as her ankle stays healthy. Whalen brings much-needed speed to the defense, and her lack of experience wouldn't be a problem. She outplayed veteran Tiffany Roberts against North Korea. Chastain hasn't had a spectacular tournament, but she's extremely athletic on the outside. (Nice feed on Mia Hamm 's goal vs. Denmark, too.)

Midfielders: Kristine Lilly and Julie Foudy as attacking mids, with Akers at holding midfielder.

No changes here, although I've had several debates with journalists about Akers. Some of them think she needs to retire ASAP. I say she's having a great tournament. The U.S. has a huge drop-off when Akers isn't in the lineup. Consider the North Korea game. When Tisha Venturini replaced Akers, the offense hardly went anywhere in the first half.

Lilly and Foudy are simply studs. They have tons of experience and they're in tremendous condition.

Forwards: Hamm, Tiffeny Milbrett and MacMillan.

Hamm and Milbrett complement each other perfectly. Another no-brainer is inserting MacMillan into Parlow's starting spot. For starters, MacMillan has the hardest shot on the team. She scored against North Korea on a missile from the edge of the box that Parlow never would have tried (And if she had, she would have skied it over the crossbar.) Reason two: MacMillan has more speed than Parlow. How many times do we have to see Americans send a pass toward Parlow, only to have her wait for the ball and watch a defender step in to pick it off? Get Mac in the game -- quick.

Subs: My first player off the bench would probably be Venturini, who has consistently shown she can provide a scoring spark, especially as the best header on the team. Then I'd go with Debbie Keller as a late sub at forward. Oh, wait, ... Keller isn't on the team. So you're left with Parlow, I suppose.

For those of you who plan to skewer me in future 'bags, keep this in mind: I'm only making two changes in the starting lineup. DiCicco's team outscored opponents 13-1 in the first round, which means things are going very, very well for the Americans. It's safe to say I wouldn't suggest any changes in the coaching ranks.

I know it's OK for players like Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers, Julie Foudy, etc. to get paid as members of the U.S. National team. But what about a player like Lorrie Fair, who still has college eligibility left? Does the NCAA have a problem with those players getting paid?
-- John Lam, Chicago

Good question, John. Not knowing myself, I asked Fair about it on Wednesday. (A senior-to-be at North Carolina, she's the only U.S. player

who still has NCAA eligibility remaining.) Fair confirmed that no, she wouldn't get any part of the bonus money each U.S. player would receive for winning the Cup. Nor did she receive the U.S. Soccer stipend given to players for participating in the five-month pre-Cup residency camp. (Between $30,000 and $40,000, depending on the player.)

The crazy thing is, Fair doesn't mind at all. "Just about everybody on the team has had to deal with this at some point," she said. "I'm just happy that I'm on it."

Obviously, Fair isn't the only player who has gotten shut out. Midfielder Tiffany Roberts , who just finished her senior year at UNC, estimated she has missed out on more than $25,000 since she joined the national team at age 16 in 1994.

The only money the NCAA allows Fair to receive is a per diem of $25 a day for "incidental expenses," and even that's less than the other players. Roberts, for example, told me she gets a $40 per diem. By the way, "incidentals" are different for different folks. Fair said most of hers goes toward phone calls. Roberts, on the other hand, said "shopping." Make of that what you will.

As a soccer lover since my stepchildren began playing in the early '80s, I am interested in your opinion on why it took this long for the sport to gain mass appeal in this country. How much do you think the U.S. women's team will enhance soccer viewership and attendance in this country, or is this just a one-time thing?
-- Terry Murry, Pendleton, Ore.

With sports, and especially with soccer, you're always dealing with a chicken-or-egg debate: Which comes first, the fan interest or the media coverage? With women's soccer, it's pretty clear a lack of media coverage hurt the sport for a long time. It's just as clear to me, too, that Americans like big events in which the U.S. wins, and the WWC fits both those categories.

Does this translate to a successful women's pro league? It could, but not necessarily. TV ratings for the WWC have been OK but not spectacular, and it's a big jump from drawing curious fans for three games to keeping them for entire seasons, year after year. Needless to say, the U.S. women have already made some huge strides. (My retired parents in Arizona, for example, throw a fit whenever WWC games are televised on ESPN2, which they don't receive. Keep in mind that these are folks who don't care a lick about MLS.)

I was impressed by the American women's team's ability to turn the other cheek against Nigeria in spite of taking some nasty hacks. Even after watching North Korea lay some nasty licks on the Danes, I have to admit that I was astounded at how physical the Nigerians were. Have you ever seen a women's team play as down and dirty as these women from West Africa?
-- Steve Adams, New Hope, Minn.

Well, no, I haven't. This can be a touchy subject, because European soccer fans often describe African teams as being reckless on the field (men's teams too), and it sometimes strikes me as a veiled form of racism (especially when a European journalist asks an African coach if his team's "lack of discipline is a reflection of the national character," which actually happened during the 1996 Olympics.)

That said, the two dirtiest teams in this tournament have been Nigeria and Ghana. How to explain? I would argue that both countries started playing the game later than other nations and are still adjusting to international play. The WWC referees have a pretty big role, too. Consider that Ghana got two red cards in its three first-round games, while Nigeria didn't get any, despite deserving two or three. Which team do you think might change its marking style the next time around?

Why has Tony DiCicco taken Mia Hamm out of the game in the second half the past three games?
-- Jessica Lavoie, Saco, Maine

Several reasons: Hamm left late in the Denmark game because she was cramping up. She left early in the second half of the Nigeria game because she was getting hacked all over the place, and DiCicco didn't want her to get injured in a blowout. And she left at halftime of the North Korea game because DiCicco was again playing it safe. In the elimination rounds, don't expect Hamm to leave until late in the game, when she's tired, or perhaps earlier if there's a runaway. These being the elimination rounds, don't expect any of those scenarios.

Send a question to Grant Wahl, and check back every week to read more of his answers.

Related information
Previous Wahl Mailbag: A Hairy Situation
Wahl: U.S., Brazil will fly into semis
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