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SPORTS EXTRA: SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

Heinrichs Maneuvers

April Heinrichs Has Worked Her Way Up Through the Ranks, From U.S. Soccer Team Captain to Coach

September 10, 2000|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is a color photograph, taken one night long ago in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, that shows 18 American women gathered around a trophy that is as tall as the tallest of them.

Clutching it tightly is a dark-haired player, wearing the all-blue uniform of the United States national team. A red ribbon is draped around her neck, and at its end dangles a gold medal.

But it's her eyes you notice first. They are staring straight at the camera. Intent. Focused. Challenging.

The eyes of April.

Even then, in the spring of 1991, long before the U.S. women's soccer team had won the first of its two world championships or its first Olympic gold medal, April Heinrichs had her sights set on the future.

She still does.

Today, Heinrichs is in Melbourne, Australia, preparing the U.S. team for its opening game of the Sydney 2000 Olympic soccer tournament, against Norway on Thursday evening. Once the team's captain, she's now the team's coach.

And with her are six of the women who also are pictured in that almost decade-old photograph. There would have been seven had Michelle Akers not retired last month.

Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly were only 19 then; Julie Foudy had just turned 20. Brandi Chastain and Carla Overbeck were 22 and Joy Fawcett was 23. If David Letterman thought the '99 team was "Babe City," he should have been paying attention in '91.

Heinrichs, at 27, was the "old-timer," the veteran forged in the fires of Anson Dorrance's burgeoning women's soccer dynasty at the University of North Carolina.

She had paid her dues. As a Tar Heel, she was a four-time All-American and a three-time NCAA champion. While she was at North Carolina, the women's team went 85-3-2 and Heinrichs became the first player to have her jersey retired.

Dorrance was also the U.S. coach back then, and it was his brand of soccer that Heinrichs learned.

"The American personality is very aggressive," Dorrance said at the time. "Our teams attack relentlessly. We don't let the other team breathe. . . . We go for it."

In Haiti, they went for it in a big way, outscoring five opponents by a combined 49-0 to win the CONCACAF championship and that tall trophy.

Within seven months, they were world champions.

Times have changed. Other nations have caught up, and while the U.S. is the reigning world champion and defending Olympic gold medalist, Heinrichs is under no illusion that winning the gold again will be easy.

China could do it, Norway could do it, Germany could do it, even Sweden or Brazil could do it.

But it's up to Heinrichs to make sure the U.S. does it. If that means there is pressure, she shrugs it off.

"I haven't felt pressure yet," she said in January when U.S. Soccer made her its surprise choice to take over from Tony DiCicco as the U.S. national coach. "I've found that I love to win and I'll put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to win and prepare a team in a fashion to win. That's the greatest pressure I'll ever have."

The China Syndrome

Born in Denver on Feb. 27, 1964, Heinrichs grew up in nearby Littleton, Colo., and it wasn't long before she was making her presence felt.

"I was a wild kid who was bound to either get into trouble or get into sports," Heinrichs told Soccer International magazine a decade ago. "I was so energetic and mischievous that I was going to be either a gang leader or captain of the national team."

Fortunately for the U.S., it was the latter.

By the time she came to the notice of Dorrance, she was already an all-state player at Littleton's Heritage High, having discovered the game at age 6.

"I played everything--basketball, softball, track--but I excelled at soccer," she said.

At UNC, Dorrance introduced her to an even higher level and then raised the bar again by bringing her onto the national team. By the time the first FIFA Women's World Championship (cq) rolled around in 1991, Heinrichs was 27, had played professionally for two seasons in Italy and was nursing an oft-injured knee.

She was also determined to have her moment on the world stage.

"She's just the consummate professional," Dorrance said of his captain. "She's dreamed all of her life about competing in an event of this stature. She wanted to come in as the world's best player, and had she not injured her knee, in my opinion it would have been a coin toss between Michelle Akers, Carin Jennings and Heinrichs as to who the world's best player would be.

"She's one of the most powerful players psychologically I've ever seen. She wants to win more than any player I've ever coached."

The 1991 world championship was played in China, where the media quickly dubbed Akers, Heinrichs and Jennings "the triple-edged sword," because they could hit you three ways to Shanghai. Between them, they scored 20 of the 25 goals as the U.S. won the title, beating Norway, 2-1, in the final.

But it was Heinrichs who was the inspiration, on and off the field.

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