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Missing in Action

Brandi Chastain, one-time hero of U.S. women's soccer, hasn't played a minute at the Olympics.

August 20, 2004|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

THESSALONIKI, Greece — She played on the team that won soccer's inaugural Women's World Cup in China in 1991. But that doesn't matter now.

She was a gold-medal winner at Atlanta in 1996. That doesn't matter much, either.

She scored the winning goal on a penalty kick in the final of the Women's World Cup in 1999. That also doesn't matter.

What matters now is that Brandi Chastain is on the sideline, reduced to a being a cheerleader as the United States moves into the Olympic quarterfinals against Japan here tonight.

In three matches, Chastain, 36, has not stepped on the field. She has dressed for each game but has not been called upon by Coach April Heinrichs.

Chastain and backup goalkeeper Kristen Luckenbill are the only two players on the 18-woman team not to have played a minute at the Olympics.

If it hurts -- and it must -- Chastain does not show it. She has declined to talk to reporters, indicating that this is not the proper time. And so it is left to others to speak for her or about her.

"She's awesome," said defender Christie Rampone. "She has a great heart, so you'd never know if she's bothered by it, or hurting, because she's always there 100% for the team.

"In the locker room, she's firing everyone up. Off the field, she always has a smile on her face. She's always giving little notes to people, inspirations. If it is hurting, we wouldn't see it."

Julie Foudy, the U.S. captain, has been a teammate of Chastain's since 1988 and realizes the frustration she must feel, especially after having injured her foot in the first game of the 2003 Women's World Cup and missing the rest of the tournament.

"I know she obviously wants to get out there and wants to play and wants to contribute," Foudy said. "But she knows she can also contribute in other ways. She's been doing that. She's such a leader on this team, whether on the field or not."

The World Cup injury, the death of both parents within a short period of time, and now relegation to the bench have amounted to one body blow after another for Chastain, but the smile remains.

"That's the thing I love about her," Foudy said. "She's gone through so much, all these things piling up, and yet it has never become a team issue. She's always the one to cheer people on. I could hear her last night in the game, shouting and encouraging us.

"She's just a wonderful example to our younger kids."

Asked why Chastain had not been given even a token appearance in the preliminary round, Heinrichs went into a long and convoluted explanation.

"What Brandi contributes is possession out of the back and leadership and strong air presence," Heinrichs said in part. "And we're making the choice to go with people who are first good defenders."

Translation: Chastain has been surpassed in defensive ability by other players.

Catherine "Cat" Reddick took her place at the World Cup and apparently will not be relinquishing it for several years. But Reddick has a long way to go to match Chastain's fan appeal.

After the U.S. had beaten Greece in its opening game, Chastain walked through the mixed zone without stopping to talk to reporters. She did stop long enough, however, to toss her cleats over a fence to two young American fans, and then to autograph each shoe, much to the girls' delight.

Surprise gifts from a world champion and gold-medal winner do not come along every day. But they do show that Chastain, playing or not, still has much to give.

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