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From afar, Milbrett pulls for U.S.

HERAKLIO, Greece -- She is the only player in Olympic soccer history who has scored goals in consecutive gold-medal matches, which certainly gives Tiffeny Milbrett a certain amount of authority when it comes to the Summer Games. Even if she isn't playing with the U.S. Women's National Team because of her self-imposed exile.

Milbrett admitted she is nervous about the American womens' semifinal confrontation here on Monday.

"I think that's the game right there that makes me the most nervous out of anytime in the history of this USA team," Milbrett said during a recent e-mail interview that included follow-up questions. "Germany right now (is) so strong and so together. They seem to be so excited to play and have the right tools to beat the USA.

"I would say that Germany really is the USA's only competition and a very equal and strong one at that. Germany is so confident right now and they are the world champion that beat us pretty bad in the World Cup semifinal that they may not be afraid of the USA anymore."

Milbrett is on a self-imposed exile from the National Team after her scathing indictment of U.S. coach April Heinrichs' coaching philosophy, in Soccer America last winter.

Milbrett, who turns 32 on Oct. 23, has no regrets on her comments and decision. In fact, she has watched every American match.

"I find myself happier than I have ever been in my life," she said.

Milbrett stressed she hasn't retired as a player. "I am still a player," she said. "Just a player in limbo."

Despite her concerns against Germany, Milbrett felt the U.S. "is still a strong team. Even throughout this tournament, teams have had trouble with the full 90 minutes. Yes, the USA may struggle compared to the high expectations placed on the team but so far no team has been able to make the team struggle enough to lose.

"Brazil (was) the team that put the most pressure on the USA. I have never seen a Brazil team so tough and so creative. But, again, it only lasted 45 minutes and the USA (was) able to come out having weathered the first 45 minutes of the storm and put together what the USA does best - that's come out and exploit a team when they make a mistake and put the ball in the back of the net

"So, even though the USA hasn't looked good they have never been in a position that made me nervous that they were going to lose. The USA is still the most dominant team in the Olympics and no other team has proven otherwise. The USA has never once been the weaker team in this tournament. Sure, at moments of minutes in the game they have been but never for a full 90 minutes."

Despite her differences with Heinrichs, Milbrett felt the U.S. can win it all.

"I think the USA can win gold with anyone as coach," she said. "That's how good of players they are. I don't know why all this emphasis is placed on the coach as being the one who takes them to the gold. A coach can be in charge of a team that wins gold but, it's also the coach that can make the players unhappy and in that situation you have to seriously evaluate that."

But she has some doubts on the over-extended residency camp that encompassed seven months.

"I think the USA should do fine," Milbrett said. "It seems teams aren't as strong as they were in the past. Even China seems to have faded. Now, it's just a matter of how much is left in the tank for the U.S. players. I never have doubted the USA's ability. I have doubted that they will have the energy left after such a long, intense and grueling preparation."

Before the tournament, Milbrett figured the U.S. would miss her and fellow University of Portland product Shannon MacMillan, who was listed as an alternate.

They both have made their mark in Olympic history. MacMillan scored the first goal in the 1996 gold-medal match, Milbrett the game-winner in a 2-1 triumph over China. Four years later in Sydney, Milbrett connected twice in gold-medal match vs. Norway, including the equalizer that forced extra time very late in stoppage time. Norway eventually won in extra time, 3-2.

"I know I'm a pure goal scorer and creator with the ball out there," Milbrett said. "I think the USA is missing a lot of that lately ... And Shannon is the one who is going to come in and be big for the team in tight situations ... They are going to need that during the Olympics."

Instead, Milbrett has sat on her couch watching every game. The matches start at 8 a.m. Pacific time.

"I am just as nervous as the next fan," she said. "It's such a different place to be, on the other side of things ... but just as supportive for the USA as if I was on that squad.

"I think it is a bit difficult to watch. You can't have played for a team for 10 years and then not be on it and think everything will be smooth. But, I do enjoy being at home watching from the comforts of my couch as well. The most difficult part is just being nervous for them."

Milbrett's self-imposed exile started after her Soccer America interview in which she criticized Heinrichs' tactics.

Asked why she sounded off then, Milbrett replied, "I don't really think I sounded off," she said. "I just told the truth of why I wasn't going to be putting on the jersey for the National Team this year. It's the only way of doing things."

Milbrett looks forward to the day when she can return to the National Team. She is stuck one goal and one game below too important milestones at 99 goals and 199 international appearances.

Only four women have broken the century barrier, including former teammates Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers. She would love to join them, but she has to play first.

"We'll see," Milbrett said. "I sure don't know anything at this point."

But Milbrett said that she saw "myself for sure returning to the National Team if there is a change of coach and if those changes are going to be right for me. My decision to leave the team was never because I didn't want to play soccer. I can't wait to be able to play again."

So, while waiting to don the red, white and blue jersey of the USA once again, Milbrett has taken on more challenges and responsibilities as the head coach of the girl's varsity team at Tigard High School in Portland, Ore. this fall.

Milbrett said she took the job "because I found myself with time and I wanted to get started on what I know will be what I do when I truly am done being a player. And that's to be a coach.

"I know I am committed to passing down the game. I will be a coach and a teacher of the game, just as I was taught by Clive Charles (the late Portland and U.S. men's Olympic team coach)."

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