Gold to go for Chastain

Soccer: Brandi Chastain, hero of last year's World Cup final, eyes a gold medal in Sydney as she and her teammates open a tournament in Hershey, Pa.,Olympic preview

June 23, 2000|By PAUL MCMULLEN | PAUL MCMULLEN,SUN STAFF

Brandi Chastain was in Manhattan last July, when she displayed a wit that is not yet as famous as her torso.

"I was in New York City to meet with my agent, and we were taking a cab that went through Central Park," Chastain said. "People were working out in all sorts of attire, and women were in their jog bras. I told my agent that he had better alert the press."

A woman working out in a sports bra is commonplace. So is the sight of a jersey coming off of a soccer player in celebration, but when Chastain combined the two at the climax of last year's World Cup, it caused a commotion and added fuel to the inferno that the women's national team had become.

Chastain, 31, is among a core of veteran American women who have tried to keep that blaze going since her goal ended an epic penalty kick shootout victory over China. They boycotted for economic equality, had their say in the future of a U.S. pro league and rarely stopped spreading the gospel of women's athletics.

"Normal has a different meaning now," Chastain said. "With all of the games that we've played since the World Cup, it hasn't given us a chance to step back and reflect on what we did. I still haven't watched [the tape of] the game. I will one of these days, probably after the Olympics are over."

The national team will be among the favorites when the 2000 Games commence in Australia in September. The American women won the Pacific Cup there last week, and their barnstorming has them in Hershey, Pa., tonight (8, ESPN), to toy with Trinidad & Tobago in the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

It's opening night for the eight-nation tournament, and organizers wouldn't mind if the July 3 final in Foxboro, Mass., is another replay of last year's World Cup championship. That game captivated the largest American TV audience ever to watch a soccer game and more than 90,000 at the Rose Bowl, but Round 2 didn't go over so hot.

China beat the U.S. team, 1-0, May 31 in the Pacific Cup opener, and fewer than 600 took in the match in Canberra. Sure, it was nasty cold and wet Down Under, but the environment was a reminder of all of the work that still needs to be done promoting the women's brand in a game in which passion - let alone rioting - had heretofore been reserved for men.

After the Gold Cup, the women will spend the rest of July playing five matches in Europe. They meet Russia on Aug. 13 in Annapolis, the first of three stops in what is billed as the "Nike Road to Glory" tour and the final test coach April Heinrichs will grade before she must submit her final roster to the IOC.

Their passports won't get as much work in 2001, when the WUSA opens for business with franchises in eight major American markets. Chastain will be the draw on the Bay Area team, and it will be a sweet reward for the years when there was little inkling that she and her sport could become fixtures.

Chastain has always been a pioneer. Female athletes suffer knee injuries at a frighteningly high rate, and she missed two college seasons after reconstructive surgery on both of her anterior cruciate ligaments. Chastain came back and starred at Santa Clara, where her husband, Jerry Smith, is the head coach, and she's now his assistant.

Chastain was a reserve forward on the U.S. side that won the inaugural women's World Cup in 1991, but then came another injury and a nearly three-year absence from the national team. When Chastain returned, she heeded then-coach Tony DiCicco's advice and converted to defender.

Despite suffering a knee injury in the semifinals, Chastain played every minute at the 1996 Olympics, helping the U.S. team win a gold medal. Not that you would have noticed.

"I think we had three minutes [on NBC] in '96," Chastain said. "Now we've been told that every single [Olympic] game will be on TV, whether it's on NBC or MSNBC or CNBC. We've arrived, in terms of how important the people who write out the diet of American television coverage feel about us. They feel we're a good product. They feel we'll get people's attention."

In December, Sports Illustrated named the national team its Sportswomen of the Year, and it was Chastain's second appearance on the cover. Last July she was there, and on the front of Newsweek and Time, as photos of Chastain on her knees, sans shirt and screaming in exhilaration, were omnipresent.

Chastain says she simply did what soccer players do after games, and she has never been bashful. Before the World Cup even started, Chastain posed for Gear magazine, wearing only her cleats and a strategically placed ball. She has signed multi-year endorsement deals worth a reported $2 million, and been compensated in other ways.

"I love seeing where youth soccer in South Dakota has grown 20 percent in the last year," Chastain said. "It's amazing the people who came out of the woodwork and said, `I've never watched a soccer game in my life, but I am a soccer fan for forever now.' It was an example of how a game can change people's lives."

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