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Kicking Butt Led by a powerhouse offense, the U.S. blew away three first-round opponents and set off a fan frenzy that swept the nation

The real-life game of Frogger began as soon as the bus carrying
the U.S. women's soccer team left Soldier Field in Chicago last
Thursday night. The Americans had just routed Nigeria 7-1, and
now a teenage girl was chasing their motorcade through traffic
on foot. "The bus sped up, and she kept running," marveled
forward Tiffeny Milbrett later. "She was dodging cars for half a
mile." Worried for their pursuer's safety, the players finally
asked the driver to stop the bus and then invited her aboard,
whereupon striker Mia Hamm gave her a pair of cleats.

Such is the state of sports in America after the U.S. tore like
a whirlwind through the Women's World Cup last week. The NBA and
NHL playoffs are history, and baseball's sluggers aren't chasing
history, which yields one logical conclusion: For now this is a
women's soccer country. Every other sport, like that girl in
Chicago, is just trying to keep up. How else to explain the
U.S.'s drawing an average of more than 65,000 fans a game? Or
players checking into hotels under such aliases as Pig Farmer,
Elvis and Happy Gilmore? Or a band of roving marauders (O.K.,
teenage girls) following Hamm into an airport rest room?

That sort of hysteria is just what happens when you play
breathtaking soccer. In a remarkable display of balance, eight
Americans found the back of the net in the Cup's first round, in
which they whipped their first three opponents by an aggregate
score of 13-1. But the pressure will only increase as the
elimination rounds begin, and if the U.S. is to advance beyond
this Thursday's quarterfinal against Germany, it will have to
rely on its proven scorers. That means Hamm, of course, but also
her fellow forward Milbrett, whose two Cup goals tie her with
three teammates for the team lead.

Not that Milbrett, 26, merely burst onto the soccer scene last
week. No American scored more goals than her three in World Cup
'95, and she slammed home the gold medal winner in the '96
Olympics against China. The only difference now is that a
national audience has finally seen Milbrett for what she is: a
5'2" water bug who's the perfect complement to Hamm in the U.S.
attack. "Tiffeny goes from point A to point B--from the midfield
to the front of the goal--with as few changes of direction as
possible," says U.S. coach Tony DiCicco. "She'll be standing
over the ball one second, and the next she's blowing by a
defender. Teams aren't just going to be zoning in on Mia,
because they can't."

The mere threat of a Milbrett run can lead to a goal. During the
second half of the U.S.'s 3-0 win over North Korea on Sunday in
Foxboro, Mass., she took possession on the right side of her
offensive third. Then, like a bull pawing the dirt before a
charge, she feinted once, twice, three times. The extra space
she created between herself and defender Kim Sun Hui allowed
Milbrett to arc a pinpoint diagonal pass to forward Shannon
MacMillan, who sent a cross to midfielder Tisha Venturini, who
headed in the second goal. Though Milbrett's pass didn't end up
on the score sheet, it was easily the most crucial part of the
sequence. Small wonder that with 14 goals and 10 assists, she
has been the team's most productive player in 1999.

Yet Milbrett might not be starting for the U.S. were it not for
her tour in the Japanese L-League from 1995 through '97. Unable
to earn a living playing in her own country, the Portland
graduate signed a $33,000-a-year contract with Shiroki Serena, a
club owned by a solar-panel manufacturer in Toyokawa, a farm
town five hours south of Tokyo. "My dream was to keep playing
soccer and make money doing it," Milbrett says. "If that meant
going overseas, that's what it meant."

It also meant a huge adjustment. In Japan, where affectionate
displays are frowned upon, Milbrett's teammates stood stiff as
two-by-fours whenever she tried to hug them after the team
scored. Nor did they understand why Teepha, as they called her,
made slide tackles against them in training. "They weren't
taught that being aggressive is O.K.," she says. Instead of
playing before exuberant adolescent girls, Milbrett usually
played in front of a few dozen middle-aged men. "The only people
who would come were the company's older businessmen, and they'd
bring 12-packs and just sit there and drink," says MacMillan, a
Shiroki teammate of Milbrett's for two years. "I swear they just
came to watch the women."

Still, it was a chance for Milbrett to play against some of the
world's best players, even if it meant locking horns with
management from time to time. On one occasion Milbrett and
MacMillan were told to participate in the company's
50th-anniversary ceremony by bowing to executives and handing
them commemorative shovels. To their teammates' astonishment,
they refused. "Basically, they wanted us to be their cutesy
showgirls," says Milbrett. "We were appalled by that."

After subsisting for three years on a steady diet of chicken
teriyaki and The X-Files, which she rented in four-episode
blocks, Milbrett returned to Portland with her favorite kaki
jiku scroll paintings and a more nuanced approach to soccer. "In
Japan they emphasize the technical level so much that it was
great for her," says DiCicco. "She had always relied mostly on
her athleticism and speed, and becoming a more technical player
helped round out her game."

These days Milbrett is having to acclimate herself to the
changing culture of her native country. For the first time last
week, she had to keep a wary eye out for a new breed of
professional autograph hound hoping to make an easy buck off the
U.S. team's growing popularity. Suddenly the U.S. women were a
topic worthy of barroom debate. Should the laser-footed
MacMillan, who had a goal and two assists against North Korea,
be starting in place of the taller Cindy Parlow? (Of course.)
Would the back line be fast enough to handle the quicksilver
Brazilians in a possible semifinal? (Tough call.) And who was
the more spectacular finisher, Hamm or Milbrett? (Last week it
was Hamm, by a hair.)

So common were the astonishments, in fact, that nobody batted an
eye when DiCicco gave his starters the day off from training
last Friday and told reporters, "Everybody's knocked up."
Knocked up? Don't worry, folks, you won't be reading any MAMA
MIA and TIFFENY TODDLER headlines. DiCicco just meant that his
players were sore after being outfouled 29-3 the previous night
by Nigeria.

The play may remain rough for the U.S. as it marches on. But as
the rest of the world has learned, you may be able to beat up
the Americans; beating them is another matter.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Mac attack North Korean defender Yun In Sil had no luck slowing MacMillan, who had a goal and two assists in a 3-0 U.S. victory.