July 28, 2006

The Emerging Faces of U.S. Soccer

By John Philip Wyllie

It was startlingly apparent to anyone who attended Sunday’s USA-Ireland women’s soccer match at USD that the American team has recently undergone a major facelift. The faces that graced the covers of Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and People during those halcyon summer days of the 1999 Women’s World Cup have almost all disappeared. In their place are the eager, enthusiastic faces of the younger players hoping for the opportunity to add to the U.S. soccer legacy. Since its inception, the ranks of the national team have been filled almost exclusively by white, middle class current or former collegiate stars. Today’s national team pool is becoming somewhat more ethnically diverse.

Along with veteran African-American goalkeeper Briana Scurry in the current pool are India Trotter from Florida State and former University of Washington star, Tina Frimpong the daughter of a Ghanaian father and a Nigerian mother. Natasha Kai, unmistakable on the field with her tattoos and body piercings, hails from Oahu’s North Shore and is the first Hawaiian to ever play for the women’s side. Young, up and coming stars Stephanie Lopez and Amy Rodriguez hope to become the first female Hispanic players to represent the United States in a World Cup once they return from overseas duty with their youth national teams.

New American head coach Greg Ryan is determined to put the best 11 players on the field when the team travels to China next year. The U.S. will attempt to regain the World Cup title it lost to Germany in 2003. In doing so, it will face an ever improving group of teams from around the world. The U.S. pool will be whittled down to the mandated FIFA limit in between now and then. Performance in matches such as Sunday’s, are an important determinant of who sticks and who doesn’t. Ryan believes in an aggressive, energy-driven approach and so far he has been getting results. The team has an impressive 16-0-4 record since he took over for Gold Medal winning Olympic coach, April Heinrichs.

One of the holdovers from the Heinrichs’ regime is former San Diego Spirit midfielder, Aly Wagner.

“My role has been constantly changing depending on whether I have been starting or coming on as a sub. I have been starting more in the last two years since the older players have left. Everyone on this team is so good that it is really competitive. I have a lot of experience so even if I am not starting and playing 90 minutes, I still want to help lead the team. Players have their ups and downs and I can recognize and see that. Maybe I can help them get through those tough times.”

One of the players Wagner might be in a position to help is Frimpong, a relative newcomer with enormous physical ability. At the University of Washington, Frimpong was a scoring machine and a two-time PAC-10 Player of the Year. On this team, she is being asked to play as a defender.

“I feel so lucky to be out here playing with these girls that I will play anywhere. It has been tough, but it has been so rewarding. I love playing defense. The transition has been a little rocky sometimes knowing tactically where I am supposed to be, but the other girls have really been helping me out and the coaches have been so patient with me. It is a process, but I keep plugging away at it.”

After a dazzling career at the University of Hawaii in which she averaged a goal per game, Kai was selected by Ryan earlier this year. Her first playing time came in the pressure cooker of the prestigious Algarve Cup. Not the least bit intimidated, she scored in her first two appearances after coming on as a substitute. She had one of the five goals in Sunday’s shutout win over Ireland. Her unorthodox appearance has not kept her from being accepted here.

“I have 12 tattoos right now (including the one that starts at her shoulder and extends to her elbow). Tattooing (and piercings) are just part of me. I enjoy being around the other girls. They are like my family away from my family. They take good care of me and I take good care of them.”

Most of the familiar veteran players are gone, but the level of talent appears to be every bit as good. After speaking to newbies Kai and Frimpong and watching them sign autographs for half an hour after the game, it is obvious that they have inherited the charm and fan-friendly tradition that made their predecessors such a hit. This new generation of American stars is going to be equally interesting to follow.

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