She wasn't even supposed to take the kick. Not when the list of U.S. shooters was first drawn up, anyway. In the waning moments of extra time during last Saturday's scoreless Women's World Cup final in Pasadena, U.S. coach Tony DiCicco asked assistant Lauren Gregg to write down the players who could convert their shots with the weight of a nation on their shoulders in a penalty-kick shootout. Only five would be guaranteed a chance, and defender Brandi Chastain was not among Gregg's choices. She was sixth on the assistant's list, a reserve to be used only if the U.S. and China were still tied after five rounds.
Until four months ago Chastain had been among DiCicco's top picks to take a penalty kick—but then she banged a rightfooted shot off the crossbar in a 2-1 exhibition loss to China. Still, DiCicco didn't feel comfortable leaving her off the list. He had watched his team practice PKs in training all week, had watched Chastain work on blasting shots with her less dominant left foot and had liked what he'd seen. He also knew that penalty kicks, like free throws, have almost nothing to do with physical skills. In a city park on a summer day, most semiathletic citizens—Americans, even—could poke the ball 12 yards past a well-trained goalkeeper. But as a method of deciding a World Cup final, penalties are without a doubt sports' most diabolical invention, requiring a Zenlike concentration. As DiCicco would say later, "Brandi always wants to take penalty kicks. Not many players do."
So he played a hunch, sending Gregg over to Chastain for a short talk. "Brandi, do you think you can make it?" Gregg asked.
"Yeah, I do," Chastain replied.
"You'll have to use your left foot."
Chastain nodded. Ten harrowing minutes later, taking the shot that could break a 4-4 tie and give the U.S. the Cup, she sent a laser past Chinese goalkeeper Gao Hong. With one swift kick Chastain coronated the U.S. women as Queens of the World, which seemed like the next logical step for a team that had gone from near obscurity to a national conversation piece in just three weeks. With an estimated 40 million U.S. viewers, the Cup final was the most watched soccer match in the history of network television, and the turnout of 90,185 at the Rose Bowl was the largest ever at a women's sporting event.
A media throng of 2,100 attended the tournament as well—or 2,099 more than greeted the U.S. team in 1991, when it returned from China carrying the first Women's World Cup trophy. Entering this year's event, the favored Americans faced a doubly daunting task: win the tournament and make a case for the start-up of a women's pro league in the U.S. Their victory was a seminal moment in women's sports and will no doubt engender years of debate over who was the biggest hero of this Cup. Was it goalkeeper Briana Scurry, whose diving save on China's third-round penalty kick set the stage for the game-winner? Or forward Mia Hamm, who keyed the U.S. attack without scoring a goal in the last four Cup games, then overcame her self-doubt during the shootout? Or Kris-tine Lilly, the midfielder who robbed China of victory in extra time by heading a ball out of the goalmouth? Or was it Chastain, who kept her cool before her climactic boot and lost her shirt afterward?
All those Americans are worthy, but none more than the one who wasn't even on the field during those last nerve-racking moments. Instead, midfielder Michelle Akers was on a gurney in the U.S. locker room, wearing an oxygen mask and with an IV in each arm. At the end of regulation, Akers had smacked into Scurry on a Chinese corner kick and slumped woozily to the turf. After being led off the field, she was surrounded by doctors trying to decide whether her concussion and dehydration merited a trip to the emergency room.
"I was loony," Akers said late Saturday night, after absorbing four liters of fluid intravenously, twice the postgame dosage she normally receives to combat chronic fatigue syndrome. Akers was so loony, in fact, that during extra time she kept asking for the score, even though a TV in the room was tuned to the game. She struggled to even follow the shootout, but when it came time for Chastain's kick, she pulled herself up to watch. As soon as Chastain scored, Akers ripped out her IV lines, tossed aside the oxygen mask and walked—haltingly, but under her own power—to the field for the awards ceremony.
The team's oldest player at 33, Akers was also its most important—just as she had been in '91 when she scored a Cup-high 10 goals. Because of chronic fatigue, she has since been forced to move from forward to defensive midfield, yet she's still dominant. On defense Akers retreated time and again to make crucial clears. On offense she played the most pressure-packed position, receiving the ball in the midfield and making split-second decisions before defenders converged on her. "She'll keep nine out of 10 balls when she's under pressure," says Jim Rudy, Akers's coach at Central Florida. "That gives the midfield great confidence to go forward immediately, which forces the other team to defend in numbers. It changes the whole psychology of the game. It's like, Here they come again."