Aly Wagner first showed her talent for juggling 12 years ago, when she won a $25 savings bond from a San Jose soccer program for keeping a ball aloft the longest time, bouncing it off her feet and knees for 1,300 straight touches. Over the last two weeks, with the stakes much higher, the 22year-old center midfielder has made it clear that she still has the knack for keeping balls in the air. In between assisting on three goals for the U.S. in a 9-0 win over Panama on Nov. 2 and on one in a 7-0 win over Costa Rica on Nov. 6 during the CONCACAF Women's Gold Cup in Seattle--victories that clinched a berth for the national team in the 2003 women's World Cup--Wagner helped lead defending NCAA champion Santa Clara to a 1-0 victory at Portland on Nov. 3. A fifth-year senior and combined sciences major, she also prepared for tests in anthropology and marketing and still found time to go trick-or-treating with, as she puts it, "a bunch of 34-year-olds."
"Aly has an innate ability to balance things in her life, and that's what she does on the field as well," says one of those 34yearolds, U.S. defender Brandi Chastain. "She deals with pressure by finding ways to get out of it, by solving problems."
It helps that Wagner welcomes pressure on the pitch. "It's still just soccer; it's still just a game," she says. "Actually, playing for the national team is more fun than college. You're under the lights, in front of a huge crowd of people cheering for their country."
Wagner's feel for the spotlight is one reason U.S. coach April Heinrichs calls her "an emerging personality" as the defending champs prepare for the World Cup, to be held next September in China. Aside from being one of the few college-age players with a shot at making the World Cup team, Wagner is the rarest of commodities in American soccer--a creative playmaker who isn't a defensive liability. Her knack for anticipating seams, for bending and spinning the ball and for delivering perfectly weighted passes has inspired comparisons to Brazil's Sissi, as well as to John Elway and John Stockton. But what really distinguishes Wagner, says Santa Clara coach Jerry Smith, is that she is so comfortable with the ball. "She doesn't have to think about it. That frees her to focus on tactics and positions and allows her to see several moves ahead."
If Wagner's passion and work ethic allow her to fit in on the U.S.'s veteran squad of women's soccer pioneers, her confidence and strength of conviction enable her to run it. "A person in Aly's position [as playmaker] has to be opinionated, and Aly certainly is that," says Chastain. "I once sat in a room with her and her sister, Sam, as they argued about film editing for wide-screen format. They couldn't even agree to disagree."
Wagner, a film buff whose occasional movie reviews for the U.S. Soccer Federation website rarely echo those of professional critics ("That's because she has terrible taste," says Chastain), grew up the youngest of four kids in an athletic family that shared a propensity for ACL injuries--Aly has suffered two of the family's combined 11--and a passion for verbal sparring. "Our dinners were never peaceful," she says. "If there was a fence-sitter on some subject, they got pushed off. We had to pick a side."
On the soccer field, however, Wagner has always sought the middle ground. In the San Jose youth leagues she gravitated toward the center midfield position and repeatedly rebuffed coaches' attempts to move her to forward. "Finally, they just left me there," she says. She led her Central Valley Mercury club to three straight national titles, Presentation High to two Central Coast Section championships and Santa Clara to its first NCAA title. Her future with the national team, with which she had earned 32 caps through Sunday, looks promising too. "I can see a scenario where we come to rely on Aly, where we ask other players to try to emulate her," says Heinrichs. "She's not going to take over for Julie Foudy or Kristine Lilly; she's going to create her own role. And maybe in 10 years we'll be talking about somebody as 'the next Aly Wagner.'"
COLOR PHOTO: ISI A LA ALY Wagner's skill at setting up teammates and willingness to defend make her a rarity among American midfielders.
The '03 Team
At the women's World Cup in China the U.S. is likely to be spearheaded by four players--Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly--each making her fourth Cup appearance. The entire roster will be a blend of youth and experience, judging from this breakdown of the members of the U.S. Gold Cup team.
AGE GROUP NUMBER OF PLAYERS COMBINED CAPS COMBINED WORLD CUPS
30 to 34 7 1,345 18 24 to 29 8 571 6 17 to 23 4 74 0