Abruptly last week, U.S. women's soccer coach, April Heinrichs (inset). Her departure comes as the women's game has reached a crossroads. After sending off retirees Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett with an Olympic gold medal last year, the U.S. players now face an uncertain present that includes no topflight pro league, no megastars, no labor agreement with U.S. Soccer (the federation that pays them between $2,500 and $4,000 per game), no major events until the 2007 World Cup--and, for now at least, no permanent coach. "This is the most critical time this national team has ever faced," says forward Abby Wambach (above, right), 24, the Yanks' best player. "But whatever challenges we're going through, as long as we stick together, we'll be O.K."
The players used that solidarity to oust Heinrichs, whose questionable tactics and autocratic style, they felt, contributed to disappointing results at the 2000 Olympics (where they won silver) and 2003 World Cup (third place). Several players argued that even in victory the U.S. was outplayed by Brazil in the 2004 gold medal game. The players' first coup attempt failed in December 2003 when U.S. Soccer president Bob Contiguglia refused defender Brandi Chastain's request for Heinrichs's removal. But a source close to the team says the players kept up the pressure and sent a letter to Heinrichs, precipitating her resignation 10 months before the end of her contract.
As U.S. Soccer searches for a new coach, labor negotiations are ongoing between the federation and the players, who decided to compete in next month's Algarve Cup in Portugal even though their old agreement ended on Dec. 31. Once a new deal is reached, U.S. Soccer hopes to hold a long-term residency camp for as many as 50 players this year in the absence of a pro league. For now, players are staying in shape by competing for semipro clubs in Europe or by working out on their own. Wambach, for example, has been training with an under-18 boys' team in Phoenix.
All is not lost, though. Colleges continue to churn out talent, U.S. youth teams are still winning world titles and the WUSA (which was shuttered in 2003) hopes to find enough investors to revive itself in 2006. "I feel strongly that a new and improved WUSA will be back," says Chastain. "Like the men's national team with MLS, it's important to have a place where we can develop our players on a regular basis."
As they showed by forcing out Heinrichs, the U.S. women have always had an ambitious edge to go along with their cuddly public image. By cultivating both qualities, they can ensure the future of their sport. --Grant Wahl
From the hospital after suffering a mild stroke, Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi (below). On Feb. 16, three days after he played in his first Pro Bowl, Bruschi was rushed to the hospital with headaches, blurred vision and numbness on his right side. The 31-year-old's health improved quickly, and he was released last Friday, but the stroke's cause and the NFL future of one of New England's most popular players were still unclear. Bruschi will undergo several months of tests before he'll be allowed on the field; treatments could range from a simple regimen of blood thinners to brain surgery.
By Savannah State, basketball coach Edward Daniels, less than a week after the Tigers (0--28) completed the NCAA's second winless season in 50 years (SI, Feb. 14). The school said Daniels's axing was part of an overhaul of its woeful athletic department. The men's tennis and women's bowling teams were eliminated, lowering the number of varsity programs to 15, one more than the NCAA requires for Division I status. But the school didn't announce plans to address the funding problems that plague the surviving teams. Daniels had just three full-scholarship players; the entire sports program spent a total of $7,282 on recruiting. "They used me," Daniels told the Savannah Morning News. "I went out and scheduled all those big-money games, and we took our beatings, and I never saw a dime. My budget was never increased."
By Venezuelan police five months after she was kidnapped, Maura Villarreal, 54, the mother of Tigers reliever Ugueth Urbina. Villarreal was abducted from her home outside Caracas in September. Last Friday she was found unharmed in a raid on an abandoned mountain resort in the southern part of the country. Her captors had demanded $6 million. "You can't say they treated me either well or poorly," she said. "The most hurtful thing was having to bear them saying that my son didn't love me because he didn't pay."
After 10 seasons in the majors, righthander Robb Nen (below), one of the most dominant closers of the 1990s. The three-time All-Star won a World Series with Florida in 1997 and finished fourth in the NL Cy Young balloting in 2000, his third season with San Francisco. Nen spent the last two years trying to come back from the torn rotator cuff he suffered in 2002, when he nonetheless had 43 saves, helping the Giants to the World Series. "What he did to stay on the field in 2002, he jeopardized his career," Giants pitcher Jason Christiansen said. "Everybody who was here has so much respect for what he did."
As a potential witness for the forthcoming child molestation trial of Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant. His name appeared on a list of 383 potential witnesses--along with Jay Leno, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross--submitted by the defense. If called, Bryant, who says he has met Jackson a few times, is expected to be a character witness.
Every day for more than a year by David Witthoft, 8, of Ridgefield, Conn., the same Brett Favre replica jersey. David hopes to gain entry into the Guinness book of world records for most consecutive days wearing the same Packers jersey. (No such record currently exists.) As of Monday he was up to 425--though it's unclear how much longer the jersey will make it. The FAVRE on David's back is peeling off, and the number 4, he says, "looks like a dot." He already has plans for when he outgrows a size 8: "I'll get a Darren Sharper or a Donald Driver jersey."
TWO COLOR PHOTOS
BRAD SMITH/INTERNATIONALSPORTSIMAGES.COM (WAMBACH, HEINRICHS)
JIM ROGASH/WIREIMAGE.COM (BRUSCHI)
AMY SANCETTA/AP (NEN)
CHRIS WARE (WITTHOFT)