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Feb 27, 2007

Fawcett's exclusion a mistake

At only 5-foot-5, with a gentle off-field demeanor, sweet smile and warm brown eyes, longtime U.S. national team defender Joy Fawcett (née Biefeld) nicknamed "Mama Joy," probably didn't seem like an intimidating presence to opponents. However, if any underestimated her, she was as adept at proving them wrong as she was in managing to be one of the squad's most superlative performers without calling much attention to herself.

Her defensive style centered around anticipation, perfect positioning and incredible persistence. More than once, an attacker believed she'd beaten Fawcett but then found the ball adroitly toe-poked away instead.

Although Fawcett usually maintained a low profile, her importance to the U.S. team during her playing days was obvious in one startling statistic -- she played every minute of every U.S. match in the last three World Cups and the last three Olympics.

Although in many ways Fawcett was an anchor to the squad, she also pulled off a regular disappearing act, leaving the squad regularly to have children. At a time when many female players put off having a family, fearful that the return to top form would be too difficult given the time off and the physical transformation involved, Fawcett gave birth to three girls, Katelyn Rose, Carli Jean and Madilyn Rae.

After each child, she fought her way back into the lineup by regaining her fitness through tough training, even when it meant her babies logged numerous miles in racing strollers.

If not for the time off involved with her pregnancies and recovery, Fawcett would no doubt be higher on the list of all-time caps for the U.S. women's team. As it is, she sits in fourth place with 239, behind only Kristine Lilly, Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy.

Fawcett also remains one of the squad's most accomplished two-way players, a defender with great ball control who could contribute to the attack. Her 27 goals and 23 assists in her career attest to her productivity at putting the ball in the net for her team rather than just keeping the ball out against opponents.

Yet what Fawcett accomplished during her time with the squad goes beyond mere statistics. At a time when she was considered by many to be the best defender in the world, she refused to let sporting accomplishments define her. Fawcett risked her career, essentially, to find a balance in her life, to seek fulfillment as a person.

The fierce competitor she remained would not let her leave the sport she loved behind, though. Although Fawcett backed out of a successful coaching career at UCLA when the demands on her time became too strenuous, she remained the guiding force of the U.S. back line until her retirement.

What Fawcett pulled off wasn't the flashy scoring totals of a Mia Hamm or the tough midfield play of a brassy Julie Foudy. In some ways, though, she became the player most American women, and certainly most mothers, could admire. The little girls might squeal for Hamm, but the mothers could look at Fawcett with her children and realize that a life at the top level of the world's elite players could include children. Unobtrusively, and merely through honest example, Fawcett became the role model of the "ultimate soccer mom."

Here was a mom who could still perform at the highest echelon of the game. Here was a mom who was passing on her experience to the next generation. Here was a mom whose mere presence sent a subtle message that life did not have to be split into segments of career, then family but that -- through work and dedication -- the two could be combined.

A defender's job, in the main, is to go unnoticed. Nearly every goal scored has involved some mistake, however small, on the part of the defense. If those mistakes are eliminated or even drastically reduced, it can smother the attacks of the opponents. Yet people often credit other factors. The forwards being shut out of chances will be considered as having an off day or something else that gives little credit to the work of the defender. Generally, the defender's satisfaction at managing to stymie the attacker comes from private accolades from coaches and teammates because good defensive work rarely is lauded publicly.

So it's perhaps not surprising that, at a time when women's soccer takes the stage in an impressive fashion, with Hamm garnering the largest vote total ever for any U.S. soccer player's admittance to the Hall of Fame, and with Foudy joining her to make up the first all-female induction class to the Hall, the sport also has taken a small step back by overlooking Fawcett for inclusion.

It's a sad lesson in the marketing aspects involved anytime a vote takes place. Foudy, by nature, has long been comfortable expressing her viewpoints and standing out in a crowd. She is a memorable presence.

Hamm, though more reserved, has a gaudy goal total to speak well for her. She also became the first U.S. soccer player, male or female, to garner major commercial interests that worked to promote her even more.

Without much fanfare, Fawcett was getting the job done at home and away.

That wasn't enough for the Hall of Fame voters, apparently.

Fawcett likely will make the HOF cut at some point, but the chance to enter with Hamm, with whom she debuted in 1987, and Foudy, her longtime teammate, is gone forever

Yet most defenders know their work isn't always appreciated or understood. They focus on the big picture of results for team. The Hall of Fame induction will be a historic day for the women's game, even if it isn't a perfect one.

It's likely that the hallways that really matter to Fawcett are the ones in which the laughter of her girls rings off the walls.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com, soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.