Nothing Ladylike About This Soccer

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New York Power's Tiffeny Milbrett, right, battles for the ball

Tiffeny Milbrett is standing wide open on the right wing, impatiently calling for the ball. The player who has it looks up, thinks abou dribbling for the briefest of moments and then realizes that when the best women's soccer player in the world is open, you'd have to be an idiot — or a journalist — not to kick the ball to her. So I do. She disappears down the field to attack the goal, something she does regularly for the New York Power of the WUSA, the women's professional soccer league, and the U.S. women's national team.

This particular morning, Milbrett and 20 of her Power teammates, plus one amateur, are practicing at the team's field in suburban Long Island, N.Y. Last year, mighty Millie led the WUSA in scoring with 35 points and was voted MVP in the league's inaugural season, in which she took the Power to the semifinals of the playoffs.

This year has been a Power outage. They are 3-17-1 for the season, with a lock on last place. For Milbrett, a gold medal Olympian and the leading scorer on the 1999 World Cup champions, it's a new experience. She doesn't accept that loser rep: "We've been saying, and I'm still saying, that this is a better team than our results indicate. We outplayed five teams and ended up losing. That's why dealing with the record is a little easier." Soccer can be that way. The Power don't seem dispirited as they warm up. "Make sure you put on your shin guards," warns Ronnie Fair, a ferocious defender who, like the rest of these pros, is an advertisement for fitness.

Women play soccer a little differently from men. In some ways, it's a better game; it's definitely more fun. The emphasis is on the positive aspects — passing, positioning and ball possession — which is what we work at on this stifling morning. With men, it's first about not losing, about destroying the opposition's game, with vicious "professional" fouls if necessary. That's not to say the Power can't mix it up. In one-on-one drills, there are enough hard tackles, jersey pulling and takedowns to qualify for the Italian league. And the girls can certainly curse as well as the guys.

Another constant: teasing among teammates. During a drill to practice throw-ins, Christie Pearce sails a ball over Milbrett's head. "I need a bigger partner," yells the 5-ft., 6-in. Pearce of her 5-ft., 2-in. teammate. In another drill, Milbrett's plan to outwit the defense collapses. "Sure, Tiff, they'll never figure that one out," yells a teammate.

Soccer is played on a huge field often made small by the speed of Defenders — get the ball and the field suddenly shrinks. Great players can exploit those small spaces, creating room for themselves with their physical skills and their intuition. They can think a few moves ahead of other players. A few minutes on the field with Milbrett and it's clear that she has that gift. At one moment she makes a completely unexpected turn away from teammates, away from help ("Tiff, I'm open!"). Yet with everyone heading in the direction where the ball ought to be played, her against-the-grain turn tilts the whole game to her advantage. Later, when she seems trapped in a corner, she flicks the ball through the legs of her opposing teammate and is suddenly free, a move that brings gasps of admiration from other players.

It's the kind of flair WUSA needs more of. These women have been coached extensively since they were kids. "Sometimes we get too technical," says Milbrett. "Coaches give you too much information. I've been allowed to develop that intuitive ability in my career and lifetime." That last part alludes to Milbrett's upbringing. Raised in a single-parent household in Portland, Ore. with an older brother, Milbrett had to be a little more independent than other kids.

This year, Milbrett has had to do a lot more for herself — her teammates haven't been able to get her the ball enough. Still, she has managed 10 goals and eight assists, 7 points shy of her last year's total. Like most stars, she craves the pressure. "To be the key player in creating and scoring goals, that's what I take pride in, and the thing I know how to do best. I want to be the goal scorer and the play maker out there. I have been doing that all my life."

Milbrett isn't just carrying the Power on her back. The stars of the WUSA, including Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy, were instrumental in the league's creation. This is their legacy, and they work ceaselessly to develop the league. This year, although attendance is off a bit, the financials have improved. There are more paying customers at full price, and sponsorship is increasing.

Milbrett still thinks there's more to do, and she is famously incapable of anything but blunt honesty. WUSA has lived off the soccer-mom set, but Milbrett says the league has to market to a broader fan base: "League-wide we need to figure it out better. It's not just about little girls and their families. We need to have marketing for the general public. I know that's very expensive, but it has to be done."

Although Milbrett won't make the playoffs, she will be appearing in WUSA's All-Star game on September 21. Then, after a short vacation — "I am desperate for a break" — she and the rest of her U.S. teammates start preparing for their run at next year's World Cup.

As the two-hour practice comes to a close, the squard lines up in two-person teams for a series of conditioning sprints. They seem to be short one player, and Milbrett graciously invites her guest to join in for some serious lung burning. The offer is declined. Before she departs, she offers a compliment of sorts — more Milbrett uncensored. "You're not as bad as we thought you would be," she says. In other words, not bad for a guy.