- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2000

ANNAPOLIS

There is substantial evidence that this year's U.S. women's soccer team is stronger than the 1999 edition that electrified much of sporting America by winning the World Cup. The squad is younger, faster and apparently just as hungry but it won't cart home gold from Sydney without substantial contributions from two elder members, Michelle Akers and Carla Overbeck.

Both Akers, 34, and Overbeck, 32, plan to retire after the Sydney Games, and small wonder. Surgeons have dug into Akers' shoulder and Overbeck's knee; Akers also suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, and neither is able to scamper about the pitch for anything close to 90 minutes these days.

No wake need be held, though, for their careers or the United States' chances Down Under. The two soccer senior citizens didn't start but played well in the second half of the Americans' 7-1 rout of Russia in yesterday's friendly at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, and afterward there were smiles all around.

"My plans aren't set yet for Michelle and Carla," coach April Heinrichs said. "But what we saw today is what we can expect [in Sydney]. Both played well, and they give us so much composure and leadership."

The combatants in question issued optimistic physical reports. "My shoulder is getting broken in for the Olympics," insisted Akers, who contributed her 105th international goal to the team's 5-1 second-half spree.

Said Overbeck: "[My knee] isn't quite there yet I don't know what percentage [of the way back] it is. It's going to be painful to play, but I've just got to work my way through it."

Probably neither will start for the U.S., which begins the defense of its 1996 Olympic title a month from today against Norway in the tougher half of the draw. Heinrichs is depending on both veterans to accept their reduced status if that's how the ball bounces.

"It stinks not to start," Akers said emphatically, "but we've got so many good young players, and I've still got a lot of ground [to make up]. My job is to make this team as good as I can any way I can."

There's an old-fashioned and appealing word for such an attitude unselfishness and it's a major reason why Brandi Chastain, if so inclined, may get to show off her sports bra once more in Sydney.

Another reason is that the Americans' offense awoke yesterday after producing just five goals in the past five games. This team, like its immediate predecessor, appears awesome on attack and determined on defense. While fashioning a 21-4-5 record this year, it has beaten eight opponents by six or more goals and shut out 16 of them.

Of course, you can't always go by the results of friendlies, which sort of conjure up the image in American minds of all the players going out for ice cream afterward. For example, the supposedly strong Russian team relaxed perceptibly yesterday after three goals in eight minutes sent the United States into a 5-1 second-half lead.

Although ABC chose to televise the game nationally, it must have produced more yawns then reruns of political conventions. This one was strictly small time, except perhaps to adolescents among a crowd of 21,278 who idolize the ground upon which Mia Hamm, Tiffeny Milbrett & Co. sweat.

The P.A. announcer introduced the players before they left the locker rooms, which meant that the athletes strolled onto the field side by side as quietly as if on their way to church. In keeping with soccer tradition, play started without any warning when a player simply approached a ball and booted it. Whatever happened to drum rolls, kickoffs and bated breath?

The Russians, who seemed overloaded with players wearing crew cuts, finished eighth in the World Cup last summer but lost out on an Olympic berth because host Australia qualified automatically. That's a good thing, too, judging from yesterday's non-effort. Among other negative statistics, the Russians were outshot 20-4. For most of the afternoon, Navy's football team could have conducted practice in the U.S. end zone without getting in the way.

The two teams will meet again tomorrow in a match mercifully closed to the public at Maryland's Byrd Stadium, where Heinrichs once coached the Terps. Two more friendlies remain, against Canada in Kansas City, Mo., on Sunday and Brazil in San Jose, Calif., on Sept. 1. Then it's off to Australia and possibly more glory for the most acclaimed and accomplished U.S. women's sports team ever.

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