The real-life game of Frogger began as soon as the bus carrying the U.S. women's soccer team left Soldier Field in Chicago last Thursday night. The Americans had just routed Nigeria 7-1, and now a teenage girl was chasing their motorcade through traffic on foot. "The bus sped up, and she kept running," marveled forward Tiffeny Milbrett later. "She was dodging cars for half a mile." Worried for their pursuer's safety, the players finally asked the driver to stop the bus and then invited her aboard, whereupon striker Mia Hamm gave her a pair of cleats.
Such is the state of sports in America after the U.S. tore like a whirlwind through the Women's World Cup last week. The NBA and NHL playoffs are history, and baseball's sluggers aren't chasing history, which yields one logical conclusion: For now this is a women's soccer country. Every other sport, like that girl in Chicago, is just trying to keep up. How else to explain the U.S.'s drawing an average of more than 65,000 fans a game? Or players checking into hotels under such aliases as Pig Farmer, Elvis and Happy Gilmore? Or a band of roving marauders (O.K., teenage girls) following Hamm into an airport rest room?
That sort of hysteria is just what happens when you play breathtaking soccer. In a remarkable display of balance, eight Americans found the back of the net in the Cup's first round, in which they whipped their first three opponents by an aggregate score of 13-1. But the pressure will only increase as the elimination rounds begin, and if the U.S. is to advance beyond this Thursday's quarterfinal against Germany, it will have to rely on its proven scorers. That means Hamm, of course, but also her fellow forward Milbrett, whose two Cup goals tie her with three teammates for the team lead.
Not that Milbrett, 26, merely burst onto the soccer scene last week. No American scored more goals than her three in World Cup '95, and she slammed home the gold medal winner in the '96 Olympics against China. The only difference now is that a national audience has finally seen Milbrett for what she is: a 5'2" water bug who's the perfect complement to Hamm in the U.S. attack. "Tiffeny goes from point A to point B—from the midfield to the front of the goal—with as few changes of direction as possible," says U.S. coach Tony DiCicco. "She'll be standing over the ball one second, and the next she's blowing by a defender. Teams aren't just going to be zoning in on Mia, because they can't."
The mere threat of a Milbrett run can lead to a goal. During the second half of the U.S.'s 3-0 win over North Korea on Sunday in Foxboro, Mass., she took possession on the right side of her offensive third. Then, like a bull pawing the dirt before a charge, she feinted once, twice, three times. The extra space she created between herself and defender Kim Sun Hui allowed Milbrett to arc a pinpoint diagonal pass to forward Shannon MacMillan, who sent a cross to midfielder Tisha Venturini, who headed in the second goal. Though Milbrett's pass didn't end up on the score sheet, it was easily the most crucial part of the sequence. Small wonder that with 14 goals and 10 assists, she has been the team's most productive player in 1999.
Yet Milbrett might not be starting for the U.S. were it not for her tour in the Japanese L-League from 1995 through '97. Unable to earn a living playing in her own country, the Portland graduate signed a $33,000-a-year contract with Shiroki Serena, a club owned by a solar-panel manufacturer in Toyokawa, a farm town five hours south of Tokyo. "My dream was to keep playing soccer and make money doing it," Milbrett says. "If that meant going overseas, that's what it meant."
It also meant a huge adjustment. In Japan, where affectionate displays are frowned upon, Milbrett's teammates stood stiff as two-by-fours whenever she tried to hug them after the team scored. Nor did they understand why Teepha, as they called her, made slide tackles against them in training. "They weren't taught that being aggressive is O.K.," she says. Instead of playing before exuberant adolescent girls, Milbrett usually played in front of a few dozen middle-aged men. "The only people who would come were the company's older businessmen, and they'd bring 12-packs and just sit there and drink," says MacMillan, a Shiroki teammate of Milbrett's for two years. "I swear they just came to watch the women."
Still, it was a chance for Milbrett to play against some of the world's best players, even if it meant locking horns with management from time to time. On one occasion Milbrett and MacMillan were told to participate in the company's 50th-anniversary ceremony by bowing to executives and handing them commemorative shovels. To their teammates' astonishment, they refused. "Basically, they wanted us to be their cutesy showgirls," says Milbrett. "We were appalled by that."
After subsisting for three years on a steady diet of chicken teriyaki and The X-Files, which she rented in four-episode blocks, Milbrett returned to Portland with her favorite kaki jiku scroll paintings and a more nuanced approach to soccer. "In Japan they emphasize the technical level so much that it was great for her," says DiCicco. "She had always relied mostly on her athleticism and speed, and becoming a more technical player helped round out her game."
These days Milbrett is having to acclimate herself to the changing culture of her native country. For the first time last week, she had to keep a wary eye out for a new breed of professional autograph hound hoping to make an easy buck off the U.S. team's growing popularity. Suddenly the U.S. women were a topic worthy of barroom debate. Should the laser-footed MacMillan, who had a goal and two assists against North Korea, be starting in place of the taller Cindy Parlow? (Of course.) Would the back line be fast enough to handle the quicksilver Brazilians in a possible semifinal? (Tough call.) And who was the more spectacular finisher, Hamm or Milbrett? (Last week it was Hamm, by a hair.)