As Mia Hamm got the U.S. rolling in the World Cup, was too much expected of her?
Expecting a soccer player to score in every game is like counting on a prospector to strike gold every time he pans a mountain stream. It's possible but very, very unlikely. "You get so few opportunities, and even then, the majority of the time you fail," says U.S. striker Mia Hamm. "That's why everyone celebrates so much when they do score."
Of course, that didn't stop American midfielder Brandi Chastain from predicting last Saturday, on the first day of the Women's World Cup, that Hamm would average a goal per game during the tournament. "Expecting Mia to score three goals a game is unrealistic, but one goal every game is realistic," said Chastain after Hamm's magnificent one-goal, one-assist performance in the 3-0 U.S. win over Denmark at Giants Stadium.
That said, great expectations and soccer are almost always a dubious mix, especially for forwards. During World Cup '98, for example, Brazil's It-boy, Ronaldo, scored four goals in seven games and led his team to the final, yet his countrymen considered him a failure for not having been more prolific. For World Cup '99, Hamm is burdened by similar outsized, made-for-TV hopes, and in one incandescent game, at least, she fulfilled them.
U.S. coach Tony DiCicco, for his part, says he's looking mainly for consistency from Hamm, in either scoring or setting up other players. Hamm would prefer to leave all expectations aside and just play. "Goals help your confidence, and as a forward you feel that scoring is one of your jobs," she says, "but I want to do whatever I can to help our team win. If that means working hard defensively and not getting a shot on goal, then that's fine with me."
Still, what does it take these days for a world-class goal scorer to merely meet expectations? And in Hamm's case, as in Ronaldo's, has the bar been set so high—by the media, fans and teammates—that it's nearly unreachable? DiCicco thinks so. "No player can score a goal a game for long stretches, not if you're playing at a high level," he says. "I'd love for Mia to do it, but we can't expect that in this World Cup."
Certainly it could happen: Hamm carried a seven-game scoring streak into this Thursday's match against Nigeria. But it probably won't: Earlier this year she had an eight-game goal drought. Either way, the Chastain Standard is too high. At week's end Hamm, the most prolific international scorer in women's soccer history, had averaged 0.63 goals-per-game during her 13 years on the U.S. team. Even Pel�, the highest-scoring men's player of all time, averaged only 0.86 for Brazil.
The point is, even for a player such as Hamm, scoring a goal depends on too many factors outside her control: whether opponents try to smother her with two or three defenders; whether her teammates can get her the ball; and whether, alternatively, they take up the scoring burden themselves. "The good thing about our team is that so many people can score," says midfielder Julie Foudy. "That's a great weapon, and it takes a lot of pressure off Mia."
In other words, Hamm could finish the Cup with one breathtaking goal, six assists and a U.S. triumph. If that happens, would her Cup performance be considered a success? Probably not. Would that be fair? Certainly not
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