Chastain is steady as she goes

Soccer: Having made a U-turn after a career dead end, Brandi Chastain is a driving though little publicized force on U.S. team.

June 30, 1999|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

FAIRFAX, Va. -- U.S. women's soccer coach Tony DiCicco prattles at times over the importance of what he calls "personality players."

He means "stars." Such as Mia Hamm, possibly the most widely publicized No. 9 in sports today, and Michelle Akers, the chronic fatigue syndrome-coper, oldest U.S. player and legend in the sport. Such as Julie Foudy, the chattiest midfielder who ever rejected admission to Stanford's medical school and punctuated it by kicking a doc for a beer maker's Women's World Cup TV ad.

Not that she's anonymous, but the name Brandi Chastain doesn't jump to mind as fast when DiCicco turns cliche-monger.

But as she and her teammates prepare at George Mason University for their Cup quarterfinal against Germany tomorrow at Landover's Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, Chastain ranks above unsung, just under the headlines. Reliable on defense, creative on attack, confident as a leader, and as strong in the air and precise on restarts as anyone in the women's game, she has played every minute in the Americans' three wins.

"She gives us so much versatility," DiCicco said after yesterday's muggy, midday practice. "She's playing very well, but the truth is, her best soccer is still ahead of her in this tournament."

Oh, and you want personality?

Ask U.S. team fan David Letterman, on whose "Late Show" Chastain appeared just before the 1999 Women's World Cup opened at the Meadowlands. No shrinking violet, Chastain, a college TV major, demonstrated why Akers, the U.S. team's deftest needler, refers to her as "Holly Wood."

Ask editors at the men's magazine Gear who talked her into posing for a photo with a soccer ball separating her from nudity. And then ask her: Any second thoughts about the pose?

"I've been asked if that's the kind of publicity we want," she said. "But I've given 10 years of my life working on my body as an athlete. It was done tastefully -- I wouldn't have agreed, otherwise. It's a picture of a confident, strong woman, and if someone can't see it that way, maybe they should look at themselves in a mirror."

Better, though, watch Chastain compete, because just shy of 31,, she's playing the best soccer of her career, which four years ago seemed dead-ended. She fully appreciates that this World Cup is her time.

"It's why I get up in the morning," she said. "It's what I love to do. I have a passion for it. I'm like a kid at Christmas, so giddy over this World Cup that I'm goofy. I can't explain it except that I feel like I'm 12 again."

In this most visible of three Women's Cups, the "big play" Chastain has assisted on two goals (the tournament's first, against Denmark, and one of its prettiest, against Nigeria), shot off the crossbar, and cleared a dangerous ball off the goal line at a crucial time.

The "inside-game" Chastain has played effectively at left midfield, central and left back, and even for a time Sunday against North Korea, defensive or holding midfield -- origin of many offensive thrusts.

"Brandi is one of our most sophisticated players," said assistant coach Lauren Gregg. "She's such a student of the game, one of our most tactical, technical players. Her ability to attack out of the back makes her very dangerous."

Chastain relishes how far women's soccer has come in less than a decade -- from a virtual secret in this country in 1991 to 1999's packed stadiums and having 2,000 accredited journalists covering parts of it.

"People know about this team this time," she said. "That's the biggest contrast. When we came back from China, one reporter was at the airport. When we hit JFK [airport in New York], it was like everyone had to connect with flights home. It wasn't like we came home and did a big parade; nothing like that."

Her perspective is tempered by profoundly discouraging moments that have snuffed many athletes' competitive zeal. Surgery for anterior cruciate ligament tears in both knees cost her the 1988 and 1989 college seasons. But she became a 1990 All-American at Santa Clara University, where she still is an assistant coach and her husband, Jerry Smith, is men's coach.

Though thrilled to be a substitute forward on the U.S. team that won the 1991 World Cup in China, Chastain started only five games, just one in China. Then, the national team virtually disbanded because of a lack of U.S. Soccer Federation support, and at 22, she wasn't asked back when it did reform.

"That was tough, because this team had been so much of my identity," she said. "And with no notice or communication, it was no longer there."

But in 1993-94, she played professionally in Japan, becoming her team's MVP and the only foreigner chosen as one of the league's best 11 players. After DiCicco was named head coach in 1994, she offered her services but was passed over for his 1995 World Cup team.

That fall, however, he called her in -- and at the coaching staff's request, the lifetime forward from San Jose, Calif., agreed to be a defender. A starter since 1996, she is nearing a landmark 100 international appearances. And she owns an Olympic gold medal from 1996, when she played every minute for the American team.

She feels bonded to the national team. Her best memories of China, she explained, "are more about sharing with my teammates an experience no one will ever take away -- we won the first World Cup, and that was very special.

"The difference now is that I understand the magnitude of this event. For this team, the greatest thrill now is knowing that we're putting on the biggest show for women's soccer -- ever."

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