Despite big health woes, veteran U.S. star Michelle Akers
Forget Margaret Thatcher. If there was ever a woman deserving of
the nickname Iron Lady, it's U.S. midfielder Michelle Akers. In
her 14 years with the national team, Akers, 33, has been the
Lenny Dykstra of women's soccer, crashing into defenders,
cross-checking attackers, hurtling headlong for the good of the
team--and the bad of her body. The damage? Double-digit knee
surgeries ("Twelve or 13, I forget," she says), a couple of
concussions and, in February, three fractured bones below her
left eye. "People are sick of seeing me get hurt," Akers says,
"but that's who I am. I take big risks. Sometimes I fall flat on
my face, but I also get some mountaintop moments."
Some? Try a few dozen. Talking about team history with Akers is
like discussing the Constitutional Convention with James
Madison. She scored the Americans' first goal, in 1985; had both
goals in the U.S. victory in the 1991 World Cup final in China;
and drilled the crucial game-tying penalty kick with just 13
minutes left in the '96 Olympic semifinal against Norway.
Akers can tell you more: that on the U.S. team's first trip to
Italy, in '85, then coach Mike Ryan, believing his charges
didn't grasp the significance of playing on a national team,
forced them to sing The Star-Spangled Banner in the middle of
practice; that at the '91 Cup, Akers brought her new friend Pele
to the team's Thanksgiving dinner (for which the Chinese hotel
delivered three live turkeys); and that she celebrated the '96
Olympic gold medal victory while hooked up to an IV on the porch
of a University of Georgia frat house.
For more than four years Akers has waged a Sisyphean battle with
chronic fatigue syndrome, which caused her to sit out almost all
of 1997 with debilitating symptoms. "There's the fatigue, but
you also have migraines, you don't sleep, your balance and
short-term memory are gone," Akers says. "I've gotten lost going
to the grocery store."
Unable to run hard for 30 minutes, much less 90, Akers has
transformed herself from the world's best striker into merely
the world's best defensive midfielder, a feat not unlike Michael
Jordan's transition from slasher to fadeaway jump shooter. The
opponent's penalty box, where Akers once roamed freely, is now
foreign territory to her, except on set plays. She follows a
simple dictum: "Walk when you don't have to run, jog when you
don't have to sprint," she says. "I've learned to be a lot more
efficient with my touches, too."
While Akers's energy level is diminished, her skills aren't. As
a holding midfielder she is responsible not only for reading the
Stratego board in front of her but also for maintaining the
shape of the U.S. defense. In January she became the fourth
woman to score 100 career goals, and U.S. coach Tony DiCicco
asserts that she can still solve defensive pressure better than
anyone. "If Michelle has two players on her, she can free
herself and make the pass," he says. "And it's not just an
ordinary pass. She almost always gives somebody the opportunity
to break the defense."
The physical side of the game, however, will always be a problem
for her. Lately Akers has been fighting high blood pressure
brought on by chronic fatigue. Because the medication used to
treat her condition is banned by the U.S. Olympic Committee, she
has been searching for home remedies, to no avail. Two weeks ago
she suffered heat stroke at practice, and on April 22, when the
U.S. played China in Hershey, Pa., she pulled herself from the
game at halftime--but not before scoring the Americans' first
goal, on a penalty kick. The U.S. went on to win 2-1.
By losing 2-1 to China on Sunday at Giants Stadium, the
Americans split with a bitter rival--not a great sign with six
weeks remaining before their World Cup opener against Denmark at
the same site. But while Akers may be the team's resident
clairvoyant (she says she foresaw the U.S.'s '91 World Cup title
and '96 Olympic gold medal, not to mention its disappointing
third-place showing at World Cup '95), her vision of the July 10
final at the Rose Bowl is still blurred. "Most of the pieces are
in place, and I have a good feeling about where we are," Akers
says, "but I won't be able to tell until it's time to go."
U.S. Goalie on the Rebound
FRIEDEL A KEEPER IN LIVERPOOL?
Remember Brad Friedel? Last fall he reached the loftiest
standing ever for a U.S. goalkeeper by earning the starting spot
with English Premier League giant Liverpool. But after making a
series of mistakes in a 2-0 loss to Manchester United on Sept.
24, Friedel lost the number 1 jersey and was pilloried in the
British press. For the next five months he didn't see a minute
Well, he's back. Last Saturday, Friedel played a strong 90
minutes in Liverpool's 3-1 road win over Blackburn Rovers.
Though Liverpool is mired in ninth place, it's likely that
Friedel will start the team's final four matches in place of the
beleaguered David (Calamity) James.
But whether Friedel will be a Liverpudlian next season--and
whether he'll play--remains to be seen. According to the keeper,
coach Gerard Houllier has told him the team wants to keep him if
he gets his work permit from the British government. Even though
Friedel hasn't played in 75% of Liverpool's games this season
(the usual requirement for a permit), he says club officials
have told him there is a "100 percent" chance he'll get one.
Friedel still could move elsewhere, but one thing's for certain:
He won't be returning to MLS (he did a season-and-a-half stint
with the Columbus Crew) anytime soon. "It would be similar to
going to play in a European basketball league after playing in
the NBA," he says. As for his standing with the national team,
Friedel is No. 2 behind Kasey Keller, according to coach Bruce
Arena, and he'll almost certainly be called in for a
full-strength friendly against Argentina on June 13 in
Washington, D.C. That said, Arena questions whether Friedel is
in the right place at Liverpool. "It was a great move initially,
given the deal [four years at $1.1 million a year], the
competition and the potential to play," Arena says. "But it
won't be good in the future unless he plays. His development in
the past year has not moved in a positive direction."
Friedel's No. 2 status should squelch rumors that he had fallen
behind Tony Meola on the U.S. depth chart. What's more, Friedel
has no plans to stop at being a backup. "Tony's had his World
Cup, Kasey had his, and I want to take mine in the next one," he
says. "That's my biggest goal, so I'm not going to sit around
and not play another season."
COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN Once a top scorer, Akers (10) has made a seamless transition to defensive midfield.
COLOR PHOTO: BEN RADFORD/ALLSPORT Friedel sees himself lasting in Liverpool--and starting for the U.S.
Q & A
At week's end 15 of MLS's 32 matches had gone to the shootout.
In August the MLS competition committee will vote on the future
of the much-maligned tiebreaker. Last year the committee voted
4-1 to keep it. One of those voting in favor was Alan
Rothenberg, the U.S. Soccer Federation president from 1990 to '98.
Alan, the shootout's a joke. What were you thinking when you
voted for it?
People have to remember that the objective of the shootout is to
remove the incentive for ties. The NASL used it, and Pele and
Franz Beckenbauer say they thought about it when they were on
But wouldn't it be better to play a sudden-death overtime of
real soccer, declaring a tie if nobody scores?
Then you'd have to worry about TV time constraints. I'd consider
other point systems for the shootout [e.g., the shootout loser
gets one point, as opposed to none], but I'm absolutely in favor
of keeping it.
Do you sleep well at night knowing you've allowed five shootouts
to happen in a single weekend?
I sleep fine. Those five games would have ended in ties.
You're a stubborn man.
I just know Americans don't like soccer teams playing for draws.