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Olympian Task Awaits Heinrichs

July 30, 2000|GRAHAME L. JONES

Sometime in the next two weeks, April Heinrichs has to make the most difficult decisions of her career. The U.S. women's national team coach has to decide:

* Whether to take two-time world and defending Olympic champions Michelle Akers and Carla Overbeck to Sydney, or tell them their superlative international careers are at an end;

* Whether her starting goalkeeper at the 2000 Olympic Games will be the heroine of the 1999 Women's World Cup, world and Olympic champion Briana Scurry, or newcomer Siri Mullinix;

* Which other players to leave behind when she selects her 18-player Olympic roster by Aug. 14.

The five-game trip to Europe, which ends today when the United States plays Norway in Oslo, has helped Heinrichs in some respects and hindered her in others.

The U.S. is unbeaten (2-0-2), having defeated and tied Norway, one of its three opponents in the first round in the Summer Games, and tied another, China. It also defeated Germany, a possible second-round opponent in Australia.

But the U.S. has scored only once in each game, testimony to just how tight the Olympic competition is going to be.

With China, Norway and the U.S. in the same group, the difference between which two teams advance to the second round and which two go home could come down to which country beats the fourth group member, Nigeria, by the largest margin.

Those are worries for September, however. For now, Heinrichs is faced with the Akers and Overbeck decisions.

Both players were taken to Europe to regain match fitness after shoulder and knee surgery, respectively, so their continued ability against top-flight competition could be assessed.

But Akers, 34, has had barely an hour's playing time--32 minutes in a 1-0 victory over Germany and 29 minutes in Thursday's 1-1 tie with Norway. Overbeck, 32, has yet to play.

Both have been at the heart of the U.S. team that has written the early history of women's soccer, Akers since 1985 and Overbeck since 1988. The two veterans are inspirational leaders off the field.

But with a limited roster, can Heinrichs afford to carry two players who might not be able to help on the field? On the other hand, will their absence destroy the team chemistry that has been painstakingly built over more than a decade of success?

It's a tough call.

The Scurry decision seems more clear-cut. Mullinix, 22, appears to have won the starting job. She started three of the four games on the European tour and probably will start today.

It was a telling example of Heinrichs' people skills, however, that she gave Scurry, 28, the captain's armband for Thursday's match, which was the goalkeeper's 100th for the national team.

But it is almost certain that Scurry, who has been hampered by shin splints for much of 2000, will have to play backup to Mullinix in the Olympics.

"I don't think it's a difficult decision," Heinrichs said earlier this month. "You watch what's happening in front of you and you see Siri Mullinix is playing on the cutting edge of international women's soccer. We're going to continue to go with her."

Despite their success on the trip and despite having won their sixth tournament of the year, the German soccer federation's centenary tournament, the U.S. women have not been dominating.

"If we want to win a tournament like this and win the Olympics, we need to play better," Mia Hamm said after a 1-1 tie against China in the Germany tournament.

The tie means that the U.S. has failed to defeat China in regulation time in the last four meetings. The teams next play Sept. 17 in Melbourne in the Olympic Games.

Heinrichs echoed the comment by Hamm, who during the trip became only the second player in the world, after teammate Kristine Lilly, to play 200 international games.

"Our best soccer is still in front of us," Heinrichs said after the 1-0 victory over Germany, but still was pleased with the performance.

"We used this tournament to simulate our first round in the Olympics, and if this was the Olympics, we would be through to the next round.

"It was three incredibly difficult games. Three games that sapped us of every ounce of energy we had. For us to play Norway and then China, just as we will do in the Olympics, and then finish with Germany, and get the results that we did, was a tremendous accomplishment."

The U.S. team returns home Monday and has three domestic games--against Russia in Annapolis, Md.; against Canada in Kansas City, Mo., and against Brazil in San Jose--before leaving for Sydney in early September.

Based on the most recent team selections, Heinrichs' starting lineup for the Olympic games is likely to feature Mullinix in goal; Christie Pearce, Joy Fawcett, Kate Sobrero and Brandi Chastain in defense; Lilly, Julie Foudy and either Lorrie Fair or Nikki Serlenga in midfield; and Cindy Parlow, Tiffeny Milbrett and Hamm as the forward line.

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