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Next
Aug 9, 2006

Wagner takes center stage

CARY, N.C. -- In the wake of Steve Nash's decision to shave his famous floppy hair, Aly Wagner might not have much competition for the best hair among former Santa Clara sports stars.

But even if Wagner, recognizable in midfield for the United States with her short blonde pony tail, and Nash no longer share stylish locks, they do have something in common: a desire to share the wealth that is so extreme it borders on socialism.

"I think you explain it like Steve Nash -- although I'm not nearly as good as him," Wagner said with a laugh when asked how she would explain her role to the casual fans that make up the audience American soccer, both men's and women's, is seeking to win over. "But I think most people understand the beauty of what Steve Nash does, which is assist a lot. He makes it easy for someone else, and that's what I love to do."

Nobody on the U.S. team, which ran its record under new coach Greg Ryan to 17-0-4 with a 2-0 win against Canada on July 30, does that better than Wagner, who ranks eighth in team history with 34 assists. In fact, while most players secretly harbor fantasies of scoring dramatic goals, Wagner's ultimate fantasy is almost disturbingly unselfish.

"If I was to have my perfect game, or the perfect experience on the field, it would be I'd put a perfect ball through for the forwards to run onto and have an easy shot," Wagner said. "I think that for the casual fan, you've always got to have someone that puts someone in a good position to succeed. And that's what I like to do is set my teammates up. And then let them have the glory."

Engaging and immensely easy-going, even standing on the field after practicing in sauna-like conditions in North Carolina before the recent game against Canada, Wagner doesn't seem like the type to slip hidden meanings into her sentences. Then again, she also lists Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" as her favorite book, suggesting linguistic acrobatics aren't something she avoids. At the very least, the contrast between her desire to put others in the spotlight and a history of others trying to put her front and center as the future of the national team is ironic.

The game against Canada marked Wagner's 100th cap, making her just the 18th American woman to reach that milestone despite the fact that she won't turn 26 until Thursday. But three years ago, Wagner was a far less experienced player still trying to find her comfort zone on the national team after a storybook career at Santa Clara that included a national title in 2001 (the first of back-to-back appearances in the NCAA title game) and the 2002 Hermann Trophy as the nation's top player.

As the 2003 World Cup approached and the people started contemplating a future without stars such as Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy, Wagner's broad smile, California cool and deft footwork on the field made her an easy pick for marketers and media members eager to anoint someone the future of American soccer. Most famously, Wagner played a central role in a memorable adidas commercial that featured a standoff between the American and Chinese teams. As the World Cup approached, she seemed to be everywhere. But the tournament itself was a major letdown for both the midfielder and her teammates, as the United States stumbled to a third-place finish.

It's easy to theorize that expectations got the best of Wagner back then, but she offers a different explanation.

"I don't think for me it was the pressure of that that got to me," Wagner said after a practice session at SAS Park. "I think it was that the WUSA season leading into the World Cup wasn't great for me. I didn't have a flow or didn't develop my game leading up to the World Cup. So I went into the World Cup not on a confidence high, kind of struggling with my game individually. ... If you're not practicing well, if you're not playing well, you're not going to do it for the national team."

But unlike athletes such as Sasha Cohen or Bode Miller, Wagner neither walked away from the game nor became bitter after a high-profile performance that fell short of her best. Instead, she assessed what went wrong and rededicated herself to the sport. As the United States prepared for the game against Canada, it wasn't difficult to find people calling Wagner the fittest player on the current roster.

"I had surgery last year, and it was really important to know that for me to play my best with this team, I have to be the fittest," Wagner said, alluding to knee surgery. "I always used to be the fittest [growing up]; I always used to go out and run fitness [drills] on my own and run [between] cones. And I stopped doing that, because I didn't want to overwork myself -- everyone talked about over-training. And when that happened, I was undertraining and I wasn't fit enough."

With her fitness and focus peaking, Wagner has won over many doubters. Again like Nash, she faced plenty of criticism for her defense early in her national team career. But any remaining defensive deficiencies are more than made up for by what she brings to the offense (especially when Shannon Boxx, one of the world's top defensive midfielders, is healthy and patrolling the midfield).

"She's our quarterback in the attack," Ryan said of Wagner. "We've got to get balls to her so she can play the dangerous pass in behind. She's always critical for us."

Adds Wagner: "I take pride on studying the game and knowing what the team needs at every given moment. So I think my leadership comes into play there, when we're in the middle of a game and I need to recognize that we need to slow the pace down or we need to step it up and pick it up and really try to lead through my decisions."

The U.S. midfield is very much a developmental unit with Boxx out of the mix until next year, making Wagner's leadership all the more valuable. Against Canada, both Leslie Osborne (21 caps) and Marci Miller (seven caps) started, with Carli Lloyd (12 caps) coming off the bench.

And in the end, Wagner's own struggles ultimately might be part of the maturation process that makes her precisely the kind of player she was made out to be so early in her career.

"With the way the team has evolved the last two years, with a lot of the veterans stepping out, I have had to take on a leadership role for this group," Wagner said. "That doesn't mean I wear the captain's armband [Wagner did serve as captain for the first time against Canada], but it means that there are things I've been through that I can help players through if they're going through it. For my career, it was up and down, so if someone is struggling with that I can offer advice there and help them through that."

Because for Wagner, it's always about the assist.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com