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Jun 23, 2005

Chastain leaves her legacy

There is something weirdly noble about the way Brandi Chastain ended her soccer career - she went out on someone else's terms.

Oh, sure, Mia Hamm got to choose her retirement date, getting out of the game so she could begin the rest of her life with Neifi Perez's backup. And Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett beat the reaper as well, figuring that they would at some point be too old to keep running around with the next generation of women's soccer players - players they helped improve by their very existence.

But not Chastain. She always had a bit more bulldog in her, and was going to make new head coach Greg Ryan get rid of her.

So he did.

Now this is not some act of haphazard cruelty. The U.S.' next big international showcase is the 2007 World Cup in China, and at that point, Chastain will be 39, which is old by nearly any standard save the odd Brazilian football mercenary. Logic tells you that those are a lot of years to take into your own penalty area, bumping into people twice your size and half your age.

Of course, there is no way to know if Ryan is right. Chastain could have gone out and shown she couldn't do it any more, just as well as shown she could.

And after the not-entirely successful tenure of April Heinrichs, it is reasonable to think that maybe Ryan is being a bit precipitous, because betting against a champion's heart is always a dodgy thing. Time will tell us what we need to know.

But we sporting fans do have this annoying habit of demanding that our great athletes know when to retire, which is typically while they are still at the top of their fame, if not necessarily their game. They want the kind of retirements that hail the champion. They want their heroes to leave something on the table, and they are quite incensed when it doesn't happen.

This is known, for lack of a better term, as the Rickey Henderson argument, and there are examples throughout history of athletes who were savaged for staying too long.

Chastain and Kristine Lilly, the fifth member of the "Fab Five," though, didn't fear that prospect. They were going to go until either they had no more go in them, or someone no longer wanted that go.

This is not to say that Hamm, Foudy and Fawcett did fear the pink slip, mind you. They left when they wanted to, having accomplished everything the game could offer them, and good on their mothers for that.

And Lilly continues on, as the U.S. captain preparing for Sunday's friendly against Canada at Virginia Beach, VA.

But Chastain believed she had more, and wanted to be shown otherwise. That Greg Ryan couldn't or wouldn't project how much more Chastain had is a judgment coaches get to make, and they rise or fall based on those judgments.

The point here is to point out that Chastain did not get cheated because she didn't go out in triumph with Hamm, Foudy and Fawcett. Her accomplishments are far too numerous for that, and no, the sports bra photo from the '99 World Cup is not one of those accomplishments.

The goal that led to the sports bra photo is, however, and for that she will be remembered with Hamm, Foudy, Fawcett and all the other members of that persistently superior side. She was an important member of a great team that stayed great for years, and if that isn't legacy enough for you, well, you're a dope.

Put simply, you cannot legitimately write the history of women's soccer without including her name, and there is nothing about her departure that changes that. She might have had something left, or she might not have, but that's going to be Greg Ryan's problem.

But it isn't what she had left, but what she leaves behind, that matters. She made women's soccer a legitimate sport outside of the 20 or 30 college campuses where they took it seriously. She helped put the game on television. She helped legitimize the pursuit for crusty old lizards who never thought the women's game would matter.

And she was on Celebrity Poker Showdown with Camryn Manheim, for God's sake. That isn't enough of a cap to one's career?

So fret not on Brandi Chastain's behalf. If Ryan is right, then she did give her all and had nothing left to bring. If he's wrong, then she gets the satisfaction that comes from everyone knowing it.

Besides, what she is owed for her body of work, Greg Ryan couldn't begin to repay anyway.