The lesson for every pro soccer coach in the U.S. is that the women's team didn't achieve its national popularity by accident. When DiCicco talked about developing an American personality for his team, he was basically saying it should be a players' team. In so doing he had to create an environment in which they could express themselves. Players on the U.S. men's teams have never seemed comfortable just being themselves on the field, in part because they lack the international success that builds confidence, but also because they have been stifled by foreign coaches who usually don't have a clue about relating to them.
"One strength of American athletes is that generally they're more educated than athletes in other countries, who maybe drop out of school at 14 to join a club," says D.C. United coach Thomas Rongen, a Dutchman who has been playing and coaching soccer in the U.S. for 20 years. "Maybe so many of the international coaches in the first year or two of MLS didn't succeed because they didn't understand that some of their ideas—like isolating your players for four or five days before a big game—doesn't work here. The American player tends to be very self-driven, and as such he needs to get away from the game at times."
DiCicco proved himself as a tactician by switching from a fast-breaking to a more flexible style after the U.S. lost to Norway in the semifinals of the '95 Cup. Yet even as he tried to regain the trophy this year, he was aware that his team needed to play with panache to grow the sport itself. "An international coach is not going to have the patience for that kind of idea," says Rongen.
No doubt fans in the most sophisticated soccer countries think it's a bit funny that the Americans are making so much of a women's team. They fail to understand the strides that were made by the sport this month. In the past, Americans complained that low-scoring games were boring and penalty kick shootouts a joke. Now, because an endearing U.S. team won, Americans seem to agree that the scoreless final between the U.S. and China was utterly exciting and that the shootout was tremendous theater. The Women's World Cup marked the first step in creating a passion for soccer and an understanding of why it's the world's most popular sport.
So impressive was the U.S. team's victory that Myernick believes that DiCicco—presumably after he guides the U.S. women in the 2000 Olympics—could become the rare women's coach in a major team sport to move directly into a high-profile job coaching men. "It's very possible," says Myernick, who was an assistant coach with DiCicco for the U.S. under-20 men's team in 1993."For a long time Tony was very much considered a goal-keeping coach, but this accomplishment has changed that."
Women's World Cup Fallout
The 300 fans who regularly attend games at Milligan College may feel as if they won the World Cup lottery. Next fall the NAIA school in northeastern Tennessee will open its third season of women's soccer with a lineup that includes two of the most exciting players in the world: "Marvelous" Mercy Akide, 23, who scored or assisted on half of Nigeria's eight goals in its run to the quarterfinals, and her playmaking midfielder, Florence Omagbemi, 24, who captained Nigeria in the '95 World Cup. "They're going to enable me to keep my job for at least the next three years," coach John Garvilla says.
The two stars were referred to Milligan by Virginia Tech coach Sam Okpodu, a fellow Nigerian, and each is planning to use her full scholarship to earn a business degree. Because of their foreign club experience and their age, they would have been eligible for only one season at a Division I school. There's a catch, though: The players have yet to visit Milligan, which is situated in rolling hills and has an enrollment of 950. "It is going to be difficult at times," Garvilla admits. "This is the South, it is a mostly white population, and we don't have a lot of foreigners."
Especially ones with the Rodmanesque orange and green coifs favored by Akide and Omagbemi. Says the baldish Garvilla, "I have a policy that you wear your own color hair, or no hair at all."