Sept. 11, 2002
By Andy Gardiner
There are more prolific scorers in college women's soccer than Santa Clara's Aly Wagner. There are players stronger in the air and more dangerous in full flight.
But no one can match Wagner's ability to control the flow with her passing and dribbling. These skills helped bring Santa Clara an NCAA title in 2001 and have vaulted Wagner into the next wave of candidates for the U.S. team.
Those skills also explain why Wagner is a leading contender for many of this year's awards and why the Broncos (2-1) are ranked third this week in the coaches' poll.
"What makes Aly special at the senior team level is her creativity and ability to play the final pass," says April Heinrichs, the U.S. team coach. "She is perhaps the best in the world at putting a ball exactly where it has to be.
"Mentally, she is always a step ahead."
Wagner was the first female soccer player to earn Gatorade's high school athlete of the year. She sat out her first year at Santa Clara after tearing a left knee ligament playing for the under-21 national team but has scored 100 points since.
Last year Wagner had 17 goals and 20 assists and scored the only goal as Santa Clara won its first NCAA title by edging North Carolina to deny the Tar Heels their 17th title. She won the Honda women's soccer award, was an Academic All-American and was named player of the year by Soccer America and Soccer Buzz.
"Giving teammates an easy ball to finish is what I enjoy most. I'd rather have an assist than a goal," she says. "When I watch games, what I love most is the passing, seeing the field, seeing the space."
Coach Jerry Smith will ask even more of Wagner this season.
"We will give her more touches than anyone else because her real gift is the things she does around the goal," he says. "(Controlling) the ball is such second nature to her, it frees her up to see all the field and anticipate.
"Whatever pass is needed, she has it. Whatever the defense gives, she takes.
"Defenses try to deny her the ball, but she is so fit, very few players can match her work rate. She just runs down (marking players)."
Wagner plays an attacking midfield position to best capitalize on her playmaking abilities. At 5-6, 130 pounds she is on the slight side to play up front with her back to the goal, but Smith is considering tweaking his alignment.
"We may play around with two forwards and three midfielders and put Aly in the gap between," he says. "That is really the ideal position for her because she's stronger facing the defense."
Wagner will need all of her skills to juggle three balls this fall: doing her schoolwork, playing for the Broncos and competing for the national team as the USA begins qualifying in October for the 2003 World Cup.
"It's going to be difficult, but I can make it work," she says. "I would love to go out with a bang and win another national championship."
Santa Clara could take early-season lumps. The Broncos are battling injuries, have three players with the under-19 national team and will lose Wagner for an unknown number of games to the U.S. senior team.
"Coach Smith is not one to panic. We need to peak in November," Wagner says. "We need to take the long view.
"I've always enjoyed being the hunter with an attainable goal, a team to shoot for. Now it's a different role for us to play, one North Carolina did such a good job of playing.
"We won't have any wiggle room because teams will be playing their best against us every game. But we only see that as a positive for us."