Despite inaction, Chastain still cheering
THESSALONIKI, Greece -- So, whatever happened to Brandi Chastain?
The hero of the 1999 Women's World Cup shootout and a member of one other world championship side and a gold-medal winning team, hasn't played a minute in these Olympic Games. In fact, she is the only field player on the U.S. bench who hasn't see any action in the first three games.
It is rare that a coach will put a player in the first time in the knockout round of a competition, so you have to wonder if Chastain will see any action. The Americans, who meet up with Japan in a quarterfinal encounter on Friday, could play as many as three more matches, including the semifinals and either the bronze- or gold-medal game.
Approached by a writer in the gift shop of the Hyatt Regency hotel on Wednesday morning, Chastain, one of the most thought-provoking interviewees yours truly has encountered in his long career, declined to talk about her situation. "It's not the right time," she said.
U.S. coach April Heinrichs, who played with the 36-year-old Chastain on the 1991 world championship team, decided to start younger players on defense such as Christine Rampone (29), Cat Reddick (22) and Kate Markgraf (28 on Aug. 22) to play alongside Joy Fawcett (36), and Heather Mitts (26), who started for Rampone in the 1-1 draw with Australia.
Heinrichs said her evaluation process for the Olympics has encompassed seven months, approximately 160 training sessions and 18 games.
"You put all that together and I think our process (shows) at the next level, at the Olympic level, the athleticism, speed and quickness. The four who we started in the first few games are the most consistent performers at the highest level.
"At the end of the day, you saw at the Brazil game their actions with and without the ball, their quickness with and without the ball was remarkable. Our process tells us that we started our best defenders, first and foremost.
"You have to have good defending at the back. After we have good defenders, we want people who can perform at the international level and people who can help us set play. In that process, we feel Brandi contributes possession out of the back, leadership and a strong air game.
"We're making a choice of going with people who are first good defenders."
Unless you have been hiding in a cave the past five years, you obviously know that Chastain was thrust into the national and international spotlight by converting the winning penalty against China. She continued to make hsitory by taking off her jersey -- revealing a sports bra -- and stunning the world.
The last several months have been difficult times for Chastain, who has donned the U.S. jersey some 179 times since making her debut back in 1988. In the first game of the 2003 Women's World Cup, Chastain broke a bone in her right foot and never played another minute.
After the third-place match, Heinrichs said that not having an experienced hand such as Chastain in the lineup hurt the team.
You have to wonder if Chastain never fully recovered from the injury or has lost a step, which can be devastating at the international level.
If Chastain has shown any disenchantment, she has kept it to herself.
"Like the professional she is, obviously I know she wants to get out there and wants to play," said team captain and midfielder Julie Foudy, a teammate of Chastain for 16 years. "She knows she can contribute in other ways. She's such a leader on this team.
"That's the thing I love about her. All these things are piling up. It's never become a team issue. She's always the one cheering people. I could hear her last night in the game shouting and encouraging us. I think she's a wonderful example for the younger kids."
Rampone agreed. "She's awesome," she said. "She has a great heart. You would never know if she was bothered by it or hurt by it because she is always there 100 percent for the team. In the locker room she always has a smile on her face. If it is hurting her, we wouldn't see it."
Michael Lewis, soccer columnist for the New York Daily News, will provide commentary about the U.S. women's Olympic team and other soccer matches at the Summer Games in Athens for ESPN.com. He is the only journalist to have covered 21 of 22 U.S. Women's National Team games in the last two Olympics (1996 and 2000) and Women's World Cup (1999 and 2003). He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com