Nov. 22, 2002
It's called "the final pass." It's the pass that leads to a goal and usually, it has to be perfect. But more often than not, it's blocked, deflected, flies too far, or falls too short. Often it skips across the turf to the goalkeeper or runs out of bounds.
But when that pass does find its mark, when it falls just perfectly to a forward, bounces with just the right spin, splits two defenders with just the right weight, and unbalances a defense, it creates that rare and delicious moment in a game - a goal scoring chance. And it's always followed by a huge roar from the fans. In fact, to see that perfect final pass is why most soccer aficionados come to the stadiums in the first place.
Meet Aly Wagner: purveyor of the final pass. The artist of the assist. The sage of the set-up.
One of a handful of young and wonderfully talented players on the U.S. Women's National Team who are shooting for a spot on their first Women's World Cup team next year, Wagner is bringing a set of skills to the U.S. midfield that make the USA's collection of ridiculously talented forwards even more dangerous.
"I really don't remember when I started to take pride in my passing, but I've always enjoyed it," said Wagner, who won three youth club national titles with the Central Valley (Calif.) Mercury, one of the finest youth teams in history. "I played with great players on the youth level and it was fun to get them the ball. Now, with the national team, all of the forwards make such great runs and are so active, it makes it easier for me to find them."
U.S. National Team coaches have long been aware of Wagner's talent. She was a member of the U.S U-16 National Team and the 1999 Women's World Cup and 2000 Olympic residency camps, but was one of the last players released before both teams were picked. She was the U.S. Soccer's 2000 Chevy Young Female Athlete of the Year and has helped the Americans to three U-21 Nordic Cup championships in her career.
But it is just now that she is finding her niche on the full national team.
Wagner played in all five matches at the 2002 CONCACAF Women's Gold Cup, logging complete games in three, and scored one goal with five assists. Her goal in the first game against Mexico got the USA started in the tournament and her assist in sudden death overtime to Mia Hamm in the championship game ended it.
Against Panama in the USA's final group game, she set up Tiffeny Milbrett three times in the first half on the way to Milbrett's record-tying five-goal performance. All three passes put Milbrett in perfect position to finish against the overmatched Panamanians.
"As far as skill, speed and goal scoring ability, Tiffeny Millbrett is probably second to none in the world," said defender Brandi Chastain, who like Wagner hails from San Jose, Calif., and has served as a role model to the young midfielder. "But when you couple her with a player who can pass the ball exactly where it needs to be in Aly Wagner, you have a deadly combination."
"I've had the chance to start a few games recently, and it's been great," said Wagner. "But you can never get comfortable on the National Team when there are so many great players fighting for spots. The WUSA is a great proving ground for players and everyone needs to be sharp at all the times to keep earning minutes."
Her rise to a place in the midfield for the United States was not a meteoric one. Wagner has endured two major knee surgeries - one that forced her to red-shirt her freshman season at Santa Clara - and numerous other nagging injuries, but battled through them all. In the process, she learned how to become a professional, something she will become officially in early February when she will likely be the first pick in the 2003 WUSA Draft.
"In the latter part of my college career, (SCU head coach) Jerry Smith has really forced me to become more professional, and now with the National Team I see how important it is to conduct yourself in a professional way all the time," said Wagner. "Sometimes, taking a day off to rest is more important than trying to push through an injury, like I would have in the past. You're not helping the team if you are on the injured list. I've seen from the veterans on the team how to be responsible in taking care of their bodies, in dealing with the press and the fans. I've really learned a lot in the past year."
Wagner will end her college career sometime over the next four weeks as she leads the defending NCAA champion Santa Clara Broncos back into the playoffs. It will be a hard script to follow after a dream season last year in which she was named Offensive MVP of the Final Four and put up incredible numbers.
She scored an amazing 17 goals from midfield during the 2001 college season, while handing out 20 assists in leading the Broncos to their first NCAA title. She scored the winning goal in the championship game, a 1-0 victory over UNC, and set up two goals in the 3-2 overtime win over Florida in the semifinal.
In her 32 games for the full U.S. National Team, she has scored eight goals, and her 11 assists this year led the team.
"I'm starting to feel much more at ease on the field with the National Team and having confidence in my own decision making," said Wagner. "It used to be that if I made one mistake, I would let it bother me and relive it over and over, making it bigger than it really was. Now, I see that all the players make mistakes. You must take risks on the field, and that can lead to missing on a pass or a shot. You just have to have confidence in yourself and your teammates and remember that the game is 90 minutes long."
It remains to be seen if Wagner can find the success and championships of gifted playmakers of U.S. Women's National Team past such as Shannon Higgins and Michelle Akers, as well as current captain Julie Foudy, but there is no doubt that she has the talent and desire.
"Every soccer player - girl or boy - wants to play in a World Cup or a world championship," said Wagner. "I've fallen short the past two times (1999 WWC and 2000 Olympics), but hopefully during the next year I can keep improving and get to a level where I can make an impact and help the team in China. That would be a dream come true for me."