BACK IN THE BACK
Thanks to stellar play in MLS, Marcelo Balboa rejoins the U.S.
The return of defender Marcelo Balboa--the alltime U.S. men's
leader with 125 international appearances--is an encouraging
development for the national team. Last summer he was one of
half a dozen veterans who were buried on the bench by coach
Steve Sampson at the World Cup, in which the U.S. finished last.
Balboa had thoughts of retiring from the sport, but this week he
joins the U.S. squad for the eight-nation Confederations Cup in
Mexico City and Guadalajara.
"It doesn't feel like a resurgence," the 31-year-old Balboa said
last Saturday before helping the Western Conference to a 6-4
victory over the Eastern in the MLS All-Star Game in San Diego.
"What happened was, I had a coach who started telling the media
that my mind was somewhere else because my wife was having a
baby, that I was getting old and that we [he and Alexi Lalas] as
defenders were not that fast."
That coach was Sampson, who dumped captain John Harkes from the
team and benched veterans Balboa, Lalas, Jeff Agoos, Tab Ramos
and Eric Wynalda for much or all of the Cup. Among those
players, only Balboa refused to criticize Sampson. In what may
have been a misguided attempt at rewarding Balboa for keeping
his mouth shut, Sampson gave the most experienced of all
American players his only 1998 Cup appearance in the last eight
minutes of the meaningless final game against Yugoslavia. "We're
down 1-0, so why do you put in a defender?" says Balboa. "I
really considered not going into that game. Afterward I was so
tired and burned out by the way I was treated that I really
thought about not playing anymore."
Balboa thinks such thoughts no longer. He has led surprising
Colorado to a league-best 12-4 record after shifting from
playmaking midfielder, his position the last two years, to his
natural role as a central defender. With Balboa on the back
line, the Rapids are MLS's top team at protecting a
lead--they're 10-1 in games in which they score the first goal.
Balboa's inspired play grabbed the attention of Sampson's
successor, Bruce Arena, who brought Balboa back for the team's
2-1 win over English club Derby County on July 13. "I don't see
myself starting, but I see myself fighting for a starting spot,"
says Balboa, who hopes to make the 2002 tournament in Japan and
South Korea his fourth World Cup. "I would say the player
standing here is probably stronger, a little smarter and a
little bit better than the one in '94."
U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco
DOING IT THE AMERICAN WAY
In leading the U.S. to victory in the Women's World Cup,
50-year-old Tony DiCicco has become the role model for all
soccer coaches in this country. He will go down as the first
American to win an international tournament while coping with
high expectations and intense scrutiny at home.
DiCicco, in his fifth year in charge of the U.S. women, faced
the sort of pressure that coaches in other major American sports
live with. True, the U.S. won the inaugural World Cup in 1991
(under coach Anson Dorrance) and the Olympic gold medal in '96
(under DiCicco), but neither of those tournaments was televised
live. Everyone was watching this time, and DiCicco delivered a
team that lived up to American ideals in every way.
"It's one of those things that's probably so hard to do," says a
fellow American coach, Glenn Myernick of the Colorado Rapids,
who guided the Western Conference to victory in the MLS All-Star
Game. "You have a team that's going well, and so many people are
jumping on the bandwagon, and there are so many demands on the
players' time--yet none of that ever affected their focus."
The lesson for every pro soccer coach in the U.S. is that the
women's team didn't achieve its national popularity by accident.
When DiCicco talked about developing an American personality for
his team, he was basically saying it should be a players' team.
In so doing he had to create an environment in which they could
express themselves. Players on the U.S. men's teams have never
seemed comfortable just being themselves on the field, in part
because they lack the international success that builds
confidence, but also because they have been stifled by foreign
coaches who usually don't have a clue about relating to them.
"One strength of American athletes is that generally they're
more educated than athletes in other countries, who maybe drop
out of school at 14 to join a club," says D.C. United coach
Thomas Rongen, a Dutchman who has been playing and coaching
soccer in the U.S. for 20 years. "Maybe so many of the
international coaches in the first year or two of MLS didn't
succeed because they didn't understand that some of their
ideas--like isolating your players for four or five days before
a big game--doesn't work here. The American player tends to be
very self-driven, and as such he needs to get away from the game
DiCicco proved himself as a tactician by switching from a
fast-breaking to a more flexible style after the U.S. lost to
Norway in the semifinals of the '95 Cup. Yet even as he tried to
regain the trophy this year, he was aware that his team needed
to play with panache to grow the sport itself. "An international
coach is not going to have the patience for that kind of idea,"
No doubt fans in the most sophisticated soccer countries think
it's a bit funny that the Americans are making so much of a
women's team. They fail to understand the strides that were made
by the sport this month. In the past, Americans complained that
low-scoring games were boring and penalty kick shootouts a joke.
Now, because an endearing U.S. team won, Americans seem to agree
that the scoreless final between the U.S. and China was utterly
exciting and that the shootout was tremendous theater. The
Women's World Cup marked the first step in creating a passion
for soccer and an understanding of why it's the world's most
So impressive was the U.S. team's victory that Myernick believes
that DiCicco--presumably after he guides the U.S. women in the
2000 Olympics--could become the rare women's coach in a major
team sport to move directly into a high-profile job coaching
men. "It's very possible," says Myernick, who was an assistant
coach with DiCicco for the U.S. under-20 men's team in 1993.
"For a long time Tony was very much considered a goalkeeping
coach, but this accomplishment has changed that."
Women's World Cup Fallout
The 300 fans who regularly attend games at Milligan College may
feel as if they won the World Cup lottery. Next fall the NAIA
school in northeastern Tennessee will open its third season of
women's soccer with a lineup that includes two of the most
exciting players in the world: "Marvelous" Mercy Akide, 23, who
scored or assisted on half of Nigeria's eight goals in its run
to the quarterfinals, and her playmaking midfielder, Florence
Omagbemi, 24, who captained Nigeria in the '95 World Cup.
"They're going to enable me to keep my job for at least the next
three years," coach John Garvilla says.
The two stars were referred to Milligan by Virginia Tech coach
Sam Okpodu, a fellow Nigerian, and each is planning to use her
full scholarship to earn a business degree. Because of their
foreign club experience and their age, they would have been
eligible for only one season at a Division I school. There's a
catch, though: The players have yet to visit Milligan, which is
situated in rolling hills and has an enrollment of 950. "It is
going to be difficult at times," Garvilla admits. "This is the
South, it is a mostly white population, and we don't have a lot
Especially ones with the Rodmanesque orange and green coifs
favored by Akide and Omagbemi. Says the baldish Garvilla, "I
have a policy that you wear your own color hair, or no hair at
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Balboa (rear) elevated the Western All-Stars over Carlos Valderrama and the East.
COLOR PHOTO: TOM HAUCK/ALLSPORT As an NAIA player, Nigeria's high-scoring Akide may show little mercy.