After the most chaotic week in U.S. women's soccer history—one marked by a hurricane, a blizzard of pink slips and the small matter of hosting a World Cup—the perfect remedy was right on the noggin of national team coach April Heinrichs. Pulled down tightly over her eyes, Heinrichs's white game-day visor called to mind a set of blinders shutting out all but what was unfolding before her on Sunday: namely, a 3-1 Cup-opening win over Sweden at RFK Stadium in Washington. Only six days after the unexpected collapse of the WUSA, their three-year-old pro league, had left the Yanks unemployed and inconsolable, they unleashed a breathtaking display of skill and resilience.
And, perhaps most of all, brute strength. From the 13th minute, when goalkeeper Briana Scurry flattened Swedish striker Hanna Ljungberg outside the penalty box to draw a yellow card, the Americans led a parade of hits and knockdowns that left their European guests woozy and fearful. "It's the World Cup," Scurry said. "You've gotta bring it, and if you don't, you'll go home early." By bumping off the world's fifth-ranked team, the U.S. (ranked No. 1) put itself in a solid position in the toughest of the four first-round groups. With a win in either of this week's matches—against Nigeria on Thursday in Philadelphia or North Korea on Sunday in Columbus, Ohio—the Americans should advance to the quarterfinals.
"In coaching, you're either a jackass or a genius," Heinrichs, 39, said after Sunday's win, fully aware that she'll morph into the former if the U.S. doesn't raise its third World Cup trophy on Oct. 12. Few other skippers on the planet must shoulder such lofty expectations—Brazil's men's soccer coach, for sure; the New York Yankees' manager, perhaps—and none must do so as the standard-bearer for a gender (a female coach has yet to win a World Cup) at a time when the future of the sport is at stake. "It's a high-pressure job," defender Brandi Chastain says. "Everyone's looking to you for the answers, and everyone has a critical eye."
Since taking over for Tony DiCicco, in 2000, Heinrichs has tirelessly tinkered with formations, adding new wrinkles. That versatility was on full display on Sunday, when every one of Heinrichs's moves paid off. On a field softened by rains from Hurricane Isabel, she tapped 5'11" strikers Cindy Parlow and Abby Wambach to start alongside Mia Hamm, and they pounded the Swedes into submission. ( Hamm provided all three assists.) Heinrichs also inserted rugged midfielder Shannon Boxx, who, after never having played for the U.S. until this month, scored in her third straight match. What's more, Heinrichs surprisingly benched mid-field general Aly Wagner, 23, and entrusted the spark-plug role to 32-year-old Kristine Lilly, who slammed home the opening goal.
The burden of managing her players' anxiety over the sport's future will also fall to Heinrichs, who is well suited to the task, having been raised in challenging circumstances. Born April Minnis in Denver, she has never met her biological father. Her mother, Patricia, married a fireman named Mel Heinrichs when April was six, and the family moved to a house in the suburb of Littleton. Eight years later the couple divorced, and Patricia moved out. "For some reason my mother and I never connected," April recalls. "There was never any doubt that I'd stay with Heinrichs, my dad."
April fondly calls Mel "the great savior," the man who let her hold the wrench while he was repairing his Harley, who played football and basketball with her in the park, who tossed a Frisbee with her for hours. "We had the common thread of sports," she says. "That sort of saved me and gave me direction." Mel Heinrichs died of cancer two years after April graduated from North Carolina, having had the chance to see her win three national championships there, launching a playing career that included a 1991 World Cup title and ended with her induction as the first woman in the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame.
Over the past decade April has grown closer to her mother, who has worked as a dorm mom at April's summer soccer camps. "The thing about me is, I don't spend too much time on the past or the absence of it," she said. "I spend a lot of time on goal setting, which is all about the future. It's a good coping mechanism."
In other words, until the U.S. run at the World Cup ends, expect Heinrichs to keep that visor on, and pulled down low.