July 31, 2002
by Soccer America Senior Editor Scott French
Tom Stone says things really started clicking for the Atlanta Beat once Kylie Bivens, primarily an outside back in the club's earliest days, joined former college teammate Nikki Serlenga as a defensive midfielder in his boxed midfield.
By then - middle of last season - the Beat was 5-1-5, second in the WUSA standings and a decent bet to be featured in the league's first title clash two months later.
He was reminded of this when the Beat, its lineup jumbled by injuries, started its second season in the cellar with a 1-3-1 mark. No coincidence things turned around when Bivens, stationed at right back until Nancy Augustyniak's return, found herself next to Serlenga again.
They're the glue that holds together a dynamic, multidimensional Atlanta team that can attack with power and precision while keeping things tight at the back.
Serlenga, 24, a 2000 Olympian, is the on-field orchestrator, a supremely skilled soccer intellectual who organizes everything in front of her to great acclaim. Bivens, 23, who has emerged in the past year with the national team, is the engine, an expert defender whose attacking sense makes her dangerous wherever she is stationed - and she's been stationed everywhere but the nets at one time or another.
''They share a lot of responsibility for organizing the team in front of them, cutting off the passing lanes to the opposing forwards, and they're both good tacklers, good in the air, defensively very sound,'' said Stone, whose squad has gone 5-1 since its poor start. ''They're very different what they bring when they get the ball. Nikki has tremendous technical abilities, the ability to deliver a ball wherever it needs to be. She's made some passes that I'm just like, 'Whoa!'
''Kylie is the engine that runs and runs and runs. She's a little more combative than Nikki, a little feistier. She loves to get forward. ... Nikki plans out her next move. Kylie reacts.''
The combination is magical for the Beat, which has gained much from its 4-2-2-2 alignment - with Bivens and Serlenga the first of the 2's. They've been building a rapport since their days at Santa Clara University, where their teams reached the final four - but no title games - in each of their four seasons.
''We've had that [chemistry] right from the start,'' says Bivens. ''Nikki's a fun person to be around. Several times during games we'll just start hysterically laughing. We laugh a lot during practices and games.''
Pairing them behind offensive stars such as Charmaine Hooper, Cindy Parlow, Sun Wen and Homare Sawa has been pivotal for the Beat.
''Nikki started off slow this season, and Kylie started off in the back because we just weren't healthy,'' Stone says. ''Once they started to play together last year, that's when the team started to really take off. We wanted to get them back together, because then good things happen for us. We win the ball farther up the field. Games aren't played 18 to 18 [box to box] like before we had them together.''
Serlenga is the boss, without question. Bivens is her deputy.
''She's the one who basically takes control of things,'' Bivens says. ''And I basically follow.''
Serlenga appreciates Bivens' all-around abilities.
''There's not something you could say she's not good at,'' Serlenga says. ''She's a great defender, she's physical, a great passer. I'm more one-touch and two-touch; I analyze the game in my head. Kylie just goes. She's a very athletic player, she dribbles and is quicker. She plays on instinct a lot.''
They'll need to play critical roles if the Beat is to meet preseason expectations by winning the WUSA crown. After missing the NCAA title game four times - their '99 team, unbeaten until the semifinals, might be the greatest college women's soccer team never to win a championship - Serlenga and Bivens finally reached the promised land last season, falling to San Jose on penalty kicks. This season's title game will be played at Herndon Stadium, the Beat's home.
''We're taking it one game at a time,'' says Bivens, who played in last year's final despite a flu bug that had her vomiting before and after the game. ''We're not even thinking about the championship. If you can't make the top four [to reach the WUSA playoffs], you can't win the championship.''
Says Serlenga: ''It's not like the team that wins first place [in the regular season] is guaranteed a place in the final. ... That's something we learned at Santa Clara.''