Brandi Chastain back on field at age 40
Brandi Chastain fumed when she read an article suggesting 40-year-old Gary Sheffield should retire from baseball.
"I think everybody needs to be able to leave or make a decision on their own terms," she says.
Chastain takes these matters a little personally. Also 40, she's playing in the new Women's Professional Soccer league -- just don't call it coming out of retirement. Sure, Chastain hasn't been with the U.S. national team in more than four years, but that was only because she was left off the roster.
"I never considered myself retired," she says. "Other people retired me."
Chastain is set to play midfield when the Bay Area's FC Gold Pride debut Sunday at home against the Boston Breakers. A decade after she etched herself in the national sports consciousness, scoring the winning penalty kick at the 1999 World Cup and ripping off her jersey in celebration, Chastain is a big-name attraction for the WPS.
It's a second chance for Chastain and for professional women's soccer in the U.S.: The league's predecessor, WUSA, folded in 2003 after three seasons.
"I didn't leave soccer from the national team or WUSA on a good note," Chastain says. "This is kind of redemption time.
"It's not for anybody else or revenge or anything like that. It's for myself personally, how I feel about the game and what I want to get out of it."
Her only competitive soccer the last few years was with a local club, with games on the weekends from spring through late summer and the occasional practice. She was a little busy with other things, like the birth of her son, Jaden, 2½ years ago.
Her most recent season actually ended early in June because of a minor knee injury. Chastain would occasionally work out with players at Santa Clara, where her husband is the coach.
She was in shape, at least, having finished the New York City Marathon in November. But that was about it soccerwise before training camp opened last month.
"The first three days I was mentally and physically exhausted," Chastain says. "The next three days I was wondering what the heck I was doing. I was so tired and sore, I wondered what I got myself into."
Then she started to notice how her younger teammates were missing practice with pulls and sprains, yet she was still out there.
Now she says picking soccer back up is "like riding a bike."
At the start of training camp, coach Albertin Montoya wondered whether Chastain and another star of that '99 World Cup team -- 36-year-old Tiffeny Milbrett -- would make the 22-player roster. Now he's considering them for the starting lineup.
"When you're out of game for that long and not playing at this level, to just step in and perform how she's done, it's been a pleasant surprise for all of us," Montoya says.
Chastain was drafted by the Pride in the seventh round in January. Milbrett, who had been playing in a lower-level league, wasn't even drafted. She had to call and e-mail team officials hoping for a tryout.
Chastain and Milbrett grace a U.S. national team poster that still hangs in Marisa Abegg's old bedroom at her parents' house. Abegg got it as a 12-year-old a week after that '99 World Cup victory. She is now 22 and their teammate.
"They step on the field every day with such intensity and passion," Abegg says.
Former World Cup teammate Julie Foudy called recently to ask what position Chastain was playing. Told midfielder, Foudy exclaimed, "Do they know how old you are?"
Milbrett figures one of the many benefits of a pro league for female athletes is that it allows them to stretch the boundaries of age. How could anybody know how long a soccer player could compete at an elite level when there was no outlet for her to prove herself?
She recalls the reaction to 41-year-old swimmer Dara Torres' Olympic success last summer: "They were acting like she was 85!"
Chastain sees no reason she shouldn't play next season if her body allows. Juggling soccer and motherhood is a challenge at times, though it helps that the Pride play at Santa Clara's stadium, just a mile down the road from her house.
And she's found nothing can replace the camaraderie of a team. Chastain is confident she belongs on this particular team, and that with her experience she can keep up with her teammates.
"It's more about, Can you be a smart player?" she says. "Can you make the necessary adjustments you need to make under pressure? Can you just be in the right place at the right time?"