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Aug 27, 2004

Heinrichs next in line to leave on top?

ATHENS, Greece -- If U.S. women's national coach April Heinrichs wants to go out on top, she should take a page out of the book of her predecessor, Tony DiCicco.

DiCicco stepped down as coach after the U.S. captured the the 1999 Women's World Cup title. He wanted to be with his family more as he went out on top.

With a gold-medal victory in tow, Heinrichs, a controversial figure for her coaching tactics and failure to win the big one until now, has an opportunity to go out on top as well. She can use the team's victory tour that kicks off on Sept. 25 as her farewell tour. Her contract reportedly runs through the end of the year.

What more can she do?

Heinrichs, however, wouldn't address the issue of her stepping down after the gold-medal victory over Brazil on Thursday. "I feel a little bit as if you asked a pregnant woman if she wants another child. Now is not the time," she told Mark Ziegler of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

With a new generation of players poised to take the mantle from the 91ers and 99ers, for that matter, a new coach with fresh ideas is needed, perhaps more of a teacher because there will be fewer veteran players.

While every national team coach will get criticized home and abroad (trust me, U.S. coaches are on vacation when you compare it to the intense scrutiny they get in Europe and South America), there have been some strong negative reactions and emotions about Heinrichs with youth coaches and members of the U.S. youth soccer community.

They wanted Heinrichs out after the U.S. lost in the semifinals of last year's WWC and winning an Olympic gold medal probably won't change any minds, either.

She's a very nice person, but there have been many questions concerning her tactics, pre-game and during matches, through the years.

Heinrichs stressed a more direct approach, rather than individual creativity. The U.S. survived the tournament on its athleticism. Well, take a good look because the rest of the world is catching up to the U.S., quicker than you think. If more creative players are not brought into the National Team, it wouldn't be surprising if the U.S. winds up on the outside looking in for the Final Four at the 2007 Women's World Cup in China.

Brazil is a sleeping giant, ready to dominate women's international soccer when this young team gets its act together. China's got to improve on its horrendous performance here and Germany and Sweden should be in the mix as well, along with a revived Norwegian side. Even Canada, with its longball game under Norwegian coach Even Pellerud, is improved (even if it failed to qualify for the Olympics).

It's been no secret that Heinrichs has been at loggerheads with the 91ers. In fact, defender Brandi Chastain reportedly went to U.S. Soccer president Dr. Bob Contiguglia in December asking him to fire Heinrichs. Of course, he didn't.

By the way, coaches do not get gold medals - only athletes do. But it is sure an impressive mention on one's resume, something that Heinrichs can be proud of and use to her advantage when she decides to find new employment.

Now may be the best time to leave - as a champion and with dignity and grace.

And if a change is made ...

As for potential replacements, the line starts on the right. This is certainly not the definitive list of potential candidates if Heinrichs decides to step down, but it is certainly a start.

  • Seemingly on the top of everybody's list is Santa Clara women's coach Jerry Smith, the husband of U.S. defender Brandi Chastain. Smith directed the Broncos to the 2001 NCAA Division I women's title. Incidentally, you might remember seeing Smith on TV during the games. He was the one with the blue-tinted hair wearing the name Chastain and the No. 6 on his bare chest.

  • Former Swedish international and Boston Breakers coach Pia Sundhage has an excellent reputation worldwide and her scouting reports helped the U.S. prepare for all matches, including Germany and Brazil. U.S. Soccer, however, might not want to opt for a foreign coach, despite Sundhage's impressive credentials. It would be unfortunate and unwise not to at least consider Sundhage.

  • Heinrichs assistant, Tracey Leone (you might remember her as Tracey Bates from the 1991 world championship team) would have to be considered a candidate. She guided the U.S. Under-19 team to the first FIFA U-19 world championship in 2002.

  • Chris Petrucelli, who won a Division I women's crown at Notre Dame in 1995 and is the head women's coach at the University of Texas, is the U.S. U-21 women's coach, and would have to be given consideration.

  • Tom Stone and Mark Kirkorian coached in the Women's United Soccer Association, the former for the Atlanta Beat, the latter the Philadelphia Charge.

    Now, the answers

    Some three weeks ago yours truly posed 11 questions that the U.S. women's team had to answer if they wanted to take that final victory lap in Karaiskaki Stadium. Let's see how they answered these questions:

    1. Can Mia Hamm still be a dominant force, especially when it comes in the later rounds?

    The answer is yes and no. Hamm did set up the winning goal against Germany in the semifinals, but ran out of gas early in the gold-medal match. She was hardly a factor.

    2. Has coach April Heinrichs learned from her mistakes of the past two major competitions?

    Heinrichs has improved, but there were questions on several fronts, including why she didn't use any substitutes for a veteran team (average starting age nearly 30 years old) in the quarterfinals against Japan. She was dealing with potential danger in the later rounds.

    Quite frankly, almost all teams -- men or women -- made subs in the knockout rounds of the four Women's World Cups or Olympic soccer tournaments. Also, why did Heinrichs take so long to bring Heather O'Reilly into the final - at the start of extra time. O'Reilly certainly could have given the U.S. a boost in regulation.

    3. Can the U.S. overcome Germany in the semifinals?

    Well, of course, that was a yes, although this certainly wasn't the same German team that captured the WWC crown last October. Without Maren Meinert and her vision and fabulous passing ability, the Germans' attack went from being chaotic if you were a defender to straight forward and predictable. It was much easier to shut down the great Birgit Prinz.

    4. Can the U.S. survive and even thrive without the University of Portland connection?

    The Americans survived without Shannon MacMillan and Tiffeny Milbrett, but certainly did not thrive. They could have used either player off the bench on a number of occasions.

    5. Can the Over-30 connection overcome the fatigue factor in the later rounds?

    They did - but barely. Now I can truly understand why some of the Fab Five want to call it a career.

    6. Can Heather O'Reilly make an impact as a 19-year-old substitute or perhaps a part-time starter?

    The winning goal in the 2-1 semifinal win over Germany says it all.

    7. Can Scurry produce a big save in the knockout rounds?

    Oh yes she did, especially in the first half against Brazil in the final. If the Brazilians scored early, it would have been an entirely different game.

    8. Can the U.S. score consistently on other than set plays?

    They did, especially when it counted - O'Reilly's goal vs. Germany and Lindsay Tarpley's long-range strike vs. Brazil. The game-winner, incidentally, was scored off a Kristine Lilly corner kick.

    9. Can Aly Wagner live up to her hype?

    Wagner was never a factor in the tournament.

    10. Can Shannon Boxx and Abby Wambach continue their breakthrough performances from USA 2003 and perhaps even improve on it?

    Boxx did OK. She struggled early on and improved as the competition went on. But she was not the same factor as she was in the WWC. Wambach led the team with four goals, including the game-winner in the final. She's a superstar in the making.

    11. Can the U.S. win a major tournament on foreign soil?

    Yes it can. And the Americans won for the first time without Michelle Akers.

    The final word: The U.S. just about answered enough questions to be champion.

    Tony's take

    DiCicco was asked about his reaction to the Olympic gold medal.

    "I was very excited for the players, specifically for the 91ers and all the players from the 1999 team," he said on Friday. "I was delighted for America. We're back, I assume as No. 1 in the world and as Olympic champions."

    The Brazilians outplayed the Americans for huge stretches in the match. DiCicco thought that they're a team of the future - 2007 in China.

    "I know people are saying they outplayed the U.S., but outplaying a team and winning the game are two different things," he said. "I don't think they have the pedigree yet to win that level. They're a young team and they could be there as early as '07.

    "It's like Germany beating the U.S. at the 2002 World Cup. The U.S. outplayed them at times. They (the Germans) know what it takes to win. They just find ways to get it done."

    DiCicco felt that Kristine Lilly or Abby Wambach was the team MVP.

    "Kristine scored key goals in three consecutive games," he said. "Abby was very big in every game. I don't think we've seen her best soccer yet. Probably the third player was Kate Markgraf. Kate had a great tournament. She was put at central defender and that changed things a lot for the team. Bri (Scurry) was a key player again."

    In fact, DiCicco wouldn't be surprised if Lilly stays around through China.

    Chip shots

  • Steaming Simoes: Apparently Brazil coach Rene Simoes hasn't gotten over his Aug. 14 tirade against the Americans' so-called dirty tactics in their 2-0 first-round victory. During a question and answer with FIFA.com on Aug. 19, Simoes was asked how he was getting on in the same hotel with so many teams. His response: "It's good. We cheer each other and say hello. With the exception of the United States team though, since they don't talk to anyone. The Americans don't even look at you. I don't know why. It is not quite the philosophy of the Olympic Games or FIFA, which should be about Fair Play. If you pass them on the corridor, they don't even say 'good morning'. I don't call it the Olympic spirit. Also in the game, I was very, very upset with the behavior of some U.S. players. They played a very dirty game."

  • As smooth as Silke: Has any other goalkeeper in the 100-year or so history of the Olympic soccer tournament pulled off what Silke Rottenberg did for Germany - three spectacular saves within a memorable 53-second span in Thursday's bronze-medal match. At 21:20, Rottenberg kicked away a point-blank header by Hanna Ljungberg with her left foot. At 22:30, she denied an onrushing Ljungberg in front of the net. And at 22:13, she tipped Frida Oestberg's header -- she had her back to the goal -- over the net. Rottenberg, you might recall, stopped the U.S. in Germany's 3-0 semifinal win in the Women's World Cup last year.

    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