US Women's Soccer Team Reboots

1991 world-championship winners strive to sustain a high level of performance

A BIT of dunking-stool type fun capped the last summer practice of the United States women's soccer team, assembled recently on an otherwise deserted field at Tufts University outside Boston. One part of the squad lined up across the goal, bent over, their back sides forming a target range for the shots of other team members.

This comical firing line was one way that Anson Dorrance, the team's coach, leavened the hard work and fostered togetherness among a group of mostly new recruits.

Says veteran goalkeeper Mary Harvey, "The spirit of the women's team is very special."

So too is the team itself, which won the inaugural women's world championship last year in China and surely ranks as one of America's best-kept sports secrets.

The news of their triumph made few headlines. If it had captured more attention, national feelings of US soccer inferiority, stemming from decades of men's frustrations in World Cup and Olympic play, might have lessened.

The United States finally gets to host the World Cup tournament in 1994, but the women's game has no place in this showcase. With such a golden opportunity, though, Mr. Dorrance is hoping his reigning world champions can achieve some recognition, even if only by appearing, with trophy, at the head tables of various World Cup banquets.

Ms. Harvey, who figures she has now made her on-field contribution to US soccer, is ready to assist off the field. "I have been talking to people with World Cup '94, the organizing committee," she says. "If they can use any of my skills as a financial consultant and [computer] systems integrator to further enhance their efforts, that would be great for both of us." The 26-year-old goalkeeper spent the last two years working for a US consulting firm in Germany, where she moonlighted as a modestly paid clu b soccer player who gained valuable experience playing about 60 games a year.

At last week's training camp here in Medford, Mass., her daily allowance as a national team player was $10, not including room and board at a local hotel. With such a pittance, coach Dorrance was not surprised to find that most of the players from the '91 team pursued better-paying summer options, many as $1,800-a-week soccer camp instructors.

"I salute them," he says, convinced that after years of commitment and sacrifice, they deserve "to make some money at last."

Although most of the veterans were absent from the national team's ever-changing roster this summer, Dorrance expects a number to return in time for the next world championships in 1995.

BEING forced to rebuild - culling players from four regional all-star teams that convened for a soccer festival in the Boston area - actually appeals to Dorrance. He knows how to cope with player turnover, to judge from his coaching record with the University of North Carolina (UNC) women's team. His Tar Heels have captured 10 of the last 11 national college titles.

In terms of "sheer pleasure," Dorrance rates the joys of building a team from the ground up greater than those of coaching the world championship team, an experience he calls "incredibly nerve-wracking and intense.... [When] you're representing your country you don't want to let anybody down."

Certainly, the American effort didn't disappoint. The team's performance (victories over Sweden, Brazil, Japan, Taiwan, Germany, and Norway) may be used to gain "demonstration sport" status for women's soccer at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Staging a world championship is one criterion for acceptance into the Games, but Mia Hamm, a US team midfielder and member of UNC's national champions, says "it looks like women's soccer won't be getting into the Olympics [as a full medal sport] until the year 2000."

In terms of spectator appeal, women's soccer proved a worthy attraction in China, where it drew large crowds, including 60,000 for the final against Norway.

The challenge facing the US Soccer Federation, says Dorrance, is to provide postgraduate women a competitive league that will "bridge the gap" between scattered national team-training camps and tours. An elite, 16-team league, divided regionally, is under consideration.

At present, the national team "will play anywhere someone would like to host us," says Dorrance, adding that a group of computer professional friends helped underwrite the recent two- game US-vs.-Norway rematch in New England.

The "green" Americans lost both games, 3-1 and 4-2.

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