Sept. 6, 2003
By Dylan Hernandez
San Jose Mercury News
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Bags of ice covered Aly Wagner's knees. ``Just a little old,'' the midfielder said with a laugh. She was joking, but Wagner, 23, is feeling older -- and that puts her in the same boat as any other player on the U.S. women's national soccer team.
The Americans take on Mexico at Spartan Stadium on Sunday, their final tuneup before their opening match at the Women's World Cup, on Sept. 21. A look at the U.S. roster reveals that much has changed since this country won the Cup in 1999.
Eight of the 20 players are over the age of 30, and another eight have no World Cup experience. If this seems like a poor balance, fear not: The team has been transforming since Coach April Heinrichs took over in January 2000 and began easing in younger players.
``We're getting close to the time where it's going to be hard to keep calling Aly Wagner and Danielle Slaton younger players,'' Heinrichs said. ``They've been around. All of our players under 25 have been fitting in nicely.''
Wagner, the focal point of the American offense as its attacking midfielder, has 46 caps, or international appearances. Slaton, a 23-year-old defender, has 41. Three others who will be playing in their first World Cup -- goalkeeper Siri Mullinix, 25; defender Cat Reddick, 21; and midfielder Angela Hucles, 25 -- all have at least 23.
The experience has helped. Wagner, who made her international debut in 1998, said she was intimidated by the players around her during her early interaction with the U.S. team.
``It took me a couple of years to get comfortable,'' she said. ``I was passive. I'm not like that anymore. That's what they want. That's not going to bring the best out of them or the best out of me if I'm not assertive.''
Forward Abby Wambach (13 caps), defender Kylie Bivens (eight) and midfielder Shannon Boxx (one) are newcomers to the national team, but each has played at least two seasons in the Women's United Soccer Association -- a league players are crediting for the squad's increased depth.
``If you can give players that professional atmosphere, they'll be able to come in and play right away,'' said forward Tiffeny Milbrett, 30, who will play in her third World Cup.
The United States' older players are not asking to be carried across the finish line. At 32, Mia Hamm tied for the WUSA points lead this year for the Washington Freedom. Briana Scurry, who turns 32 on Sunday, fell off the national team's radar after the '99 World Cup but has revived her career the past two years; this season, playing for the Atlanta Beat, she was named the WUSA's goalkeeper of the year. The projected starters at central defense, Brandi Chastain and Joy Fawcett, are 35 but remain strong, with Fawcett winning the WUSA's defender of the year prize.
The fusion of youth and experience has looked good. In its first match since Heinrichs named her World Cup roster, the United States routed Costa Rica 5-0 on Monday.
``I was pleasantly surprised,'' Heinrichs said.