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SOCCER

There's Just No Replacing Akers

August 27, 2000|GRAHAME L. JONES

And now there are six.

The decision by Michelle Akers to retire from international competition before, rather than after, the Sydney Olympic Games means that only a half-dozen players from the U.S. team that traveled to China in 1991 and returned with the world championship still are lacing up their cleats.

But Brandi Chastain, Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Carla Overbeck would be the first to admit that the void Akers leaves behind cannot be filled.

The U.S. team was built around her. She was there from the beginning, when the team was formed in 1985, and for 15 years she helped carry it and the sport of women's soccer to greater heights. In stature and in heart, she towered above the rest.

In the end, though, all the injuries, all the operations and constant coping with chronic fatigue syndrome were too much. The most lethal edge to 1991's "triple-edged sword" of Akers, April Heinrichs and Carin Jennings was finally worn down.

Heinrichs, now the U.S. coach, knows it will be impossible to replace Akers. She is a unique figure, but when the American team leaves for Sydney in two weeks, it would do well to remember her words after winning the gold medal in 1996.

"The Olympic podium is a moment many dream about," she wrote. "It is exactly as you imagine it. Almost surreal. Extremely emotional. Tears. Laughter. Disbelief. Joy. All at once and all overwhelming.

"My first thought when they placed that gold medal around my neck was, 'Wow! That's heavy.' Then, 'Wow! That's shiny.' And finally, 'Wow! This is mine.'

"Then they played our national anthem. Whoa. I had watched so many other athletes sing their anthems and often wondered how I would react. What would I do if I won? I put my hand on my chest, found the American flag atop the stadium, struggled not to cry and belted it out!"

That was exactly how she played, too--belting it out--and the fact that she retires a world and Olympic champion is only fitting.

MUCH ADO ABOUT MAMADOU

When Tampa Bay forward Mamadou "Big Mama" Diallo crashed into New York/New Jersey goalkeeper Mike Ammann on Aug. 16, the collision put the MetroStars' player in the hospital for five days with three broken ribs, a punctured lung and facial cuts and bruises.

The reverberations still are being felt, especially in the wake of Major League Soccer's decision that Diallo would not be fined or suspended for the incident. A few examples:

* "That guy should be in jail, not on a soccer field," Nick Sakiewicz, the MetroStars' general manager, told the Associated Press. "Any good forward pulls out, cuts his legs and jumps over the keeper. The player made no attempt to do it and kept running.

"People who look at that and say that it wasn't intentional have either never played the game or are covering it up."

Sakiewicz's outburst prompted Diallo's agent to say he would seek legal advice, but MLS said Sakiewicz was "speaking in the heat of the moment" and will not be fined.

* Defender Mike Petke fanned the flames in the MetroStars' next match when he yanked up his game jersey to reveal a T-shirt bearing the words "Aug. 16: Crime of the Century," and on the back "Revenge Is Coming."

Petke then stirred things up further by saying, "If that would have happened on the street in New York City in front of a cop that would have gotten at least three to five years in jail, probably. As far as the shirt goes, I remember something called freedom of speech."

MLS wasn't amused and fined Petke $250 "for conduct unbecoming of a professional athlete."

* Diallo apologized and tried to visit Ammann, a former Cal State Fullerton goalkeeper from Orange, in the hospital but was rebuffed. "Hopefully he doesn't have my phone number," Ammann said.

* Ammann is out for the season and his backup, Tim Howard, leaves for Australia with the U.S. Olympic team in two weeks. That means MetroStar Coach Octavio Zambrano has no experienced goalkeeper for the MLS playoffs or for the team's U.S. Open Cup semifinal match Sept. 12. A search is underway for a replacement.

MLS Executive Vice President Ivan Gazidis said the league had not acted against Diallo, who leads the league with 22 goals, because, "We were not able to find clear and unambiguous evidence on the videotape . . . of recklessness, negligence or an intent to injure."

The MetroStars are considering an appeal to U.S. Soccer or even to FIFA. Meanwhile, the teams could meet again in the playoffs.

QUICK PASSES

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