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Hoping to Storm Back

Milbrett looks to regain scoring touch as U.S. heads for Women's World Cup

September 18, 2003|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — With Isabel lurking darkly and dangerously off the coast, the approaching hurricane was a popular topic of conversation at the United States women's national team camp here Wednesday.

The players trained in bright sunshine, but the wind was beginning to pick up and the clouds were slowly moving in.

It was the lull before the storm.

Tiffeny Milbrett can identify with that. She has been in a bit of a lull lately. Not so much a slump as a pause, the sort of inexplicable barren patch that all of international soccer's top goal scorers go through at one time or another.

The Women's World Cup, which begins Saturday -- Isabel permitting -- and features Milbrett and the rest of the U.S. team opening against Sweden at Washington on Sunday, would be the perfect time for the third-most prolific striker in U.S. history to rediscover her touch.

She has scored 98 goals in 191 matches since her debut on the national team a dozen years ago. Two more goals will make her only the third American, after Michelle Akers and Mia Hamm, to reach the 100-goal plateau -- and only the fifth player in the world to do so.

Not that there is any pressure on her. Quite the contrary, in fact.

"I spend the time with Tiffeny helping her understand that we all understand that when a forward has a difficult time and the goals aren't flowing off the end of her foot without her thinking about it too much, the last thing you should do is talk about it too much, address it, give it a name and give that story legs," Coach April Heinrichs said. "So we don't talk about it too much.

"I don't want to give her anything but positive thoughts to think about, the knowledge that we believe in her. The genuine and sincere appreciation that at any moment she could be one of the brightest players and she could be one of the heroes of the games we have in front of us."

Milbrett, 30, has been the hero many times. Her 98 international goals include the game-winner against China in 1996 that gave the U.S. its gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics. And she scored twice in the final against Norway at the 2000 Sydney Games when the Americans won the silver.

She was the U.S. team's joint-leading scorer with three goals in the 1995 Women's World Cup at Sweden, where the U.S. finished third, and the top scorer, also with three goals, in the 1999 tournament won by the U.S.

So stage fright is the last thing that will worry her this time around.

Even so, the goals have not been coming as fast as they once did. It took Milbrett 107 games to reach 50 goals. She sprinted to 75 in 145 games and had reached 95 goals by the end of last year.

And then, well, then came the pause.

In 10 matches this year, Milbrett has found the back of the net only three times, although one of them came in a 1-0 victory over fellow World Cup participant and possible quarterfinal opponent Brazil at New Orleans on July 13.

"What people don't realize is that these things happen," she said matter-of-factly.

Hamm understands what Milbrett is going through. She went through the same thing a few years ago and, because she is Hamm, the media scrutiny was even worse.

"To tell you the truth, I have a lot of really wonderful friends," Hamm said. "And regardless of what was said or what was written, they believed in me.

"You go through spells like that. You press even harder, you try even harder, and you almost get in your own way.

"But we've seen what Millie can do, even if she's not scoring goals. Her running at speed with the ball tears defenses apart, and if she's not finishing, someone else has the opportunity [to score].

"As a team, we're not putting pressure on her."

Hamm is certain the goals will start again for Milbrett, probably before the semifinals in Milbrett's hometown of Portland, Ore.

"It's not a matter of if, it's just when," she said. "She's unbelievably talented and I'm so happy she's on our team."

And so, while the clouds moved in Wednesday afternoon, Milbrett sat happily enjoying her lunch on the field with the rest of the players before they headed for the bus that would take them to Washington and to the World Cup one step ahead of Isabel.

If she was concerned about her mini-drought, it didn't show.

She knows that, like the rain, the goals will come.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The Top 10

All-time international goal-scoring leaders in women's soccer:

*--* Name Country G Mia Hamm United States 142 Elisabetta Vignotto * Italy 107 Carolina Morace * Italy 105 Michelle Akers * United States 105 Tiffeny Milbrett United States 98 Kristine Lilly United States 91 Heidi Mohr * Germany 83 Lena Videkull * Sweden 71 Pia Sundhage * Sweden 71 Julie Fleeting Scotland 68 * -- Retired Source: U.S. Soccer

*--*

Milbrett's Record

Tiffany Milbrett's year-by-year record with the U.S. national team:

*--* Year Gm GS Min Gls 1991 1 0 24 0 1992 2 2 142 1 1993 9 4 497 1 1994 8 3 301 2 1995 21 10 1,083 8 1996 24 19 1,531 13 1997 17 17 1,378 8 1998 20 19 1,371 14 1999 27 26 2,095 21 2000 35 32 2,620 15 2001 5 4 391 3 2002 12 11 913 9 2003 10 5 459 3 Tot 191 152 12,805 98

*--*

Note: Milbrett finished as the defunct WUSA's third career leading scorer with 31 goals in three seasons for the New York Power.

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