US Women Tune Up for World Soccer Match
Defending champions feature superstar Michelle Akers; coach's views on goalkeeping
WHEN the women's world soccer championships are played in Sweden June 5 to 18, the United States' Michelle Akers may induce more beads of sweat on opponents' brows than a good Swedish sauna.
Akers on the attack is a chilling sight for any goalkeeper. The rangy 5 ft. 10 in. forward no doubt looks taller as she bears in on the goal at a full gallop, hair blowing, ready to drill hard, deadly shots into the back of the net.
At the inaugural women's championship in China four years ago, she was the leading scorer for the victorious US team. Among her 10 goals were five in one game and the winning goal against Norway in the final.
That last goal, she says, was ''the most terrifying and wonderful moment'' of an international career, which dates to 1985.
''In my head I saw myself kicking it over the goal, a defender coming in and blocking it,'' she says after a US team practice at the Seminole County Sports Training Center. ''It was our sixth game of the tournament. I was injured and extremely tired, and there were only two minutes left in the game.''
She stole a pass, dribbled around Norway's goalie, and carefully shot the ball 10 yards into the vacant net. Because she is such a threat, two defenders often shadow her. But even with fewer chances to score, says US women's coach Tony DiCicco, Akers's presence makes her teammates play better. ''She is the best player in the world,'' he says. ''With her on the field, other players feel more confident that they can get the job done.''
Until 1990, Akers says she was a team player to a fault. That year she metamorphosed into an ''impact player'' while playing professionally for the Tyreso Football Club in Sweden.
''My coach had been emphasizing to me this sort of selfish superstar quality,'' she says. ''It's not a negative selfish, but an impact, 'make a difference' selfish. I couldn't get past that until I went to Sweden and realized that for us to win I had to score the goals. I had to do it week-in and week-out.''
By the '91 world championships, she says with detachment, she was ''this wonderful player.'' She hastens to add that the US team is loaded with wonderful players (including eight veterans from the '91 team) and she is not ''the most wonderful. I'm saying I'm a good player and have some talent and that I work very, very hard.''
Her ability was evident early, first as an All-American at Shorecrest High School in Seattle, then at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, where she won the first Hermann Trophy as the nation's top woman player. She was a four-time All-American.
Akers anticipates playing in the 1996 Olympics, when women's soccer will debut, and plans to play in another World Cup and Olympics in 1999 and 2000.
Soccer is her full-time calling. When in training -- as before the current ''Road to Sweden'' exhibition tour, which stops in Tacoma, Wash., tonight for a US-Brazil game -- Akers works out of her home office near the team's headquarters, tending to the business of being a soccer star. She answers fan mail, autographs auction items, writes for Sidekicks magazine, and prepares presentations for her sponsor, Umbro, a soccer-equipment maker.
Akers claims there was a time when she was too engrossed in soccer. Through life experiences, she says, she learned that her faith and family must come first. ''Being more balanced in other aspects of life makes you a better athlete,'' she concludes.
Coach: Outlook is key to goalkeeping
THE key to coaching, says Tony DiCicco, ''is to create challenging environments and then to guide players to successes that build self-confidence.''
The coach of the United States women's national team trains some of the best players in the world. His particular expertise is goalkeeping, a subject he has studied since his playing days at Springfield (Mass.) College and later as an American Soccer League player, a founder of 18 goalkeeping camps, and a specialist for the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.
''The greatest demands on the goalkeeper are mental,'' DiCicco says. ''Many goalkeepers aren't able to deal with the realization that one mistake may mean the game. A goalkeeper has to be free of the fear of failure and just play. You're going to make some mistakes and give up some bad goals because you're human. The ones who can deal with the pressure, which is usually self-imposed, are the ones who go farthest.''
DiCicco has also worked with and observed many youngsters being introduced to goalkeeping.
''I see a lot of young kids becoming goalkeepers at age nine and 10 and that's not good,'' he says. ''They haven't sufficiently become soccer players yet. They need to become soccer players before they become goalkeepers.'' Young players should rotate through various positions before specializing, he says.
DiCicco considers six to be a good age to start soccer, but only if practices are kept short -- an hour or less -- and fun.
''What coaches have to ask themselves is: 'Is it better for youngsters to attend team practices or just stay at home, get a ball, a couple of friends, and play in the backyard?' Many times it's better for them to do the latter.''