If any team emerges as "America's team" at this summer's Centennial Olympics it may be the United States women's soccer squad. It's easy to like and relate to - and might well win the gold medal in the inaugural women's Olympic soccer competition.
There's a wholesome, All-American quality and unity running through the national team. The players represent every region of the country and most of them could pass for slightly grown-up versions of the girl next door. The US players currently appear in an antismoking public-service TV ad.
"The members of this team genuinely like each other," says captain Carla Overbeck. "Yes, we do have some superstars, but at the same time, no, we don't. We don't have people who let their egos get involved."
Last year, a number of the veterans pressed for a change in the way US Soccer, the sport's national governing body, plans to reward their Olympic efforts. The dispute was potentially ruinous to the players' Olympic dreams, but they quietly and firmly stood their ground and resolved things without acrimony. (Players who have exhausted their college eligibility collect an undisclosed salary.)
"That's in the past, and I'm happy to get over it," says Mia Hamm, a midfielder widely regarded as one of the best all-around players in the world. "I'm most proud about how we [players] all came together."
In fact, many of them have been together on the US team for years. Five have contributed to the University of North Carolina's dynasty (12 national collegiate championships in the past 14 years), and several were on the US team that won the first women's world championship in 1991. That victory occurred in China and went largely unnoticed by the American public, as did the team's third-place finish at the worlds last year in Sweden.
This season's record looks promising. In the US Women's Cup '96 a four-team round-robin affair with China, Japan, and Canada, the US beat Canada, 6-0, in Worcester, Mass., on May 12. The US defeated Japan, 4-0, in a Horsham, Pa., match May 16, and triumphed over China, 1-0, two days later in Washington, D.C.
"I'm extremely happy that the Olympics are going to be in the US," Overbeck says. "This time everybody is going to be able to see us. It's important to have parents and friends supporting you. They came to China, and they came to Sweden, but here, with the home field and the home crowd, I think it's going to be an unbelievable experience."
Tony DiCicco, the US coach, says he thinks this team is better than last summer's World Cup squad. A few personnel and tactical changes have been made, practices at the team's national training center outside Orlando, Fla., have been more competitive, and DiCicco has worked to create an environment of expectancy.
"I want them to envision receiving the gold medal on Aug. 1," he says. "I want them to feel it being put around their necks. I want them to feel every aspect of being a champion."
Most have had that experience in some form already. This, plus the maturity and cohesiveness of this group, DiCicco says, will be invaluable in the Olympics.
Of Hamm, Overbeck, and midfielder Kristine Lilly, he says, "They've been through a lot together. They've won a World Cup, and they've lost a World Cup. They have great respect for each other and are great friends. When this nucleus breaks up, it's going to be a bit traumatic, but they'll look back on years of fun, a lot of success, and the opportunity they had to create a strong foundation for US women's soccer."
These three are groomed by Tar Heel and former national team coach Anson Dorrance. Overbeck, a 1990 graduate, passed the mantle to Hamm, Lilly, and Tisha Venturini, all of whom won national college player-of -the-year honors between 1991 and 1994. Brief introductions to this core group of national team players follow:
Forward; 112 international appearances; Hometown: Chapel Hill, N.C.
Thoughtful and soft-spoken, she leads by example on the field. As a child she was encouraged to try ballet. "I lasted about one class," she says. Her first love has always been sports, including football, which she played for the Notre Dame middle school in Wichita Falls, Texas.
A soccer player for the past 19 years and the youngest member (she was at 19) of the 1991 world-championship team, Hamm says, "Soccer helps me express a lot of the things that I want to say or can't say or don't know how to say - things that I feel."
A strength of the national team, she says, has been its ability to keep players together over time and to avoid cliques. Speaking of this capacity for blending newcomers with seasoned performers, she says, "Our team has always been very good at that. I think it has to do with the quality of the character of the people we have. We all have the same love for the game, we enjoy each others' company and want to help each other become better."
Hamm has been active in City Block Soccer, a program that teaches inner-city youths the game. "They get the greatest joy out of a hug, a kind word," she says. "I learn more from them than they do from me."
Midfielder; 112 international appearances; Hometown: Wilton, Conn.
As a midfielder, Lilly says her playing responsibilities are to establish "the rhythm of the game, to keep the ball moving, to find our forwards, and to not lose possession in midfield because that's a big counterattack area."
Coach Tony DiCicco says the versatile Lilly can be counted on for a solid game every time, which is especially high praise given that she and Hamm each have played in more international games than any other American woman in history.
Last year, in an effort to keep her skills sharp, she played briefly for the Washington Warthogs of the Continental Indoor Soccer League. She was the league's only female, but says "the guys were absolutely great. They were so much faster, though, I had to play with my head to make sure I didn't get down about it." (Jim Gabarra, the Washington coach, is married to Carin Gabarra, a teammate of Lilly's.)
Defender; 91 international appearances; Hometown: Dallas.
Overbeck has been called the Cal Ripken Jr. of the US national team for her streak of playing 54 consecutive complete international games, a run unmatched by any other American, man or woman. She is the assistant women's soccer coach at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
She says she was going to retire after the 1991 world championship. But one opportunity led to another, and now she has arrived at the Olympics, which she expects to cap her playing career.
Anson Dorrance, her college coach, says that Overbeck used to tease him that she was going to become a bon-bon-eating couch potato after graduating. Dorrance knew better. "She had too much pride to let her body go to seed," he says, "and is too much of a competitor not to take her game to the highest level, and too great a leader to desert the cause."
Midfielder; 62 international appearances; Hometown: Modesto, Calif.
"I don't know where I live yet; I don't really have a home," Venturini says of life on the run in soccer. Her parents still live in California, where she once starred at Grace Davis High School in Modesto, scoring 107 goals for a team that had a four-year conference record of 54-0-2. As a freshman at the University of North Carolina in 1991, she was the Most Valuable Defensive Player of the NCAA postseason tournament. In her senior season, she was the tournament's Most Valuable Offensive Player.
Venturini says her favorite part of soccer is the creativity it affords. "You have all this space and so many different things you can do," she says. "You can flip the ball over somebody's head, bend it around up to you forwards, or just take off in a sprint."