With Father’s Day just around the corner, I thought I’d reflect for a few moments on a few of the dozens of stories of National Teamers and their fathers that we heard in our interviews for our book, Raising Tomorrow’s Champions.
Briana Scurry’s father, Ernest, told her to race to the bus stop every morning and, in general, “Always be first.” Lori Lindsey’s Dad, meanwhile, demanded that she prioritize practicing soccer, stating: “The homework can wait ’til later.” The man once known as “Crazy Larry” Lindsey also punted the ball toward his 8-year-old daughter’s face from 10 feet away to try to teach her to be unafraid of the ball.
We heard how Alex Morgan's Dad, Mike, got out of bed each day at 4 a.m. to get his workday started so that he’d have time to drive his daughter and her teammates to his practices in the afternoon. Midge Purce told us how her father, James, raised her and her brother all by himself, and April Heinrichs told us how her stepfather, Mel, stood by her when her mother walked away when April was just 15.
Shannon MacMillan explained why she didn’t talk to her father for years, but does now that she has a son of her own. Joanna Lohman shared the memory of her father coming to her in tears after she came “out” as a lesbian. “There’s no sugar-coating it when you shatter your parents’ dreams; those conversations — the ones where you establish your true identity as gay or straight, man or woman, athlete or not — can send mothers and fathers into a painful process of mourning the person they thought they had created,” wrote Joanna on Page 24.
In all, the book features the phrases “father” or “Dad” nearly 200 times and sometimes the references are flattering; other times they’re not. Jessica McDonald’s father spent his life in prison. Mallory Pugh’s Dad is often the first person she calls, whether the news is good, or not. It’s clear that children can, in fact, overcome poor parenting — or a father or mother being gone altogether — and still succeed in sports and life. But the data shows that fathers like Horace Pugh who get it right, by supporting their children through the wins AND the losses, the times of stardom AND the moments on the bench, are far more likely to produce successful, happy players and people.
That’s why, as a soccer Dad myself, I helped Joanna write this book. Champions are not always the ones holding the trophies . . . and the more Dads who understand that, the better. Happy Father’s Day everyone.
BOOK EXCERPT: The 12 Most Socially Significant National Teamers of All-Time
When Joanna Lohman and Paul Tukey started conceiving of a soccer book, they never envisioned writing about the Xs and Os of playing the game, or who scored the winning goals and made the greatest saves. From the beginning, they were focused on the impact the women have had on society, as well as the lives of girls and boys. The authors’ thesis was simple: The U.S. Women’s National Team has become the most socially significant sports team in American history.
For the Prologue, the authors kicked off their book with the selection of the 12 most socially impactful players of all-time. Some of the most iconic names and faces are a given: Mia Hamm was women soccer’s first superstar; Abby Wambach became America’s greatest scorer; and out-and-proud Megan Rapinoe may be the most recognizable female athlete on the planet today who’s not named Serena.
Some of the names, however, are much lesser known. With 241 all-time National Teamers to choose from (at the time of the book’s publication), did the authors get their list right? Here’s an exclusive excerpt from Raising Tomorrow’s Champions:
11 Plus 1 Who Changed the Rules
At the end of 2020, a total of 241 women had appeared in at least one game for the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, aka the National Team, since its inception in 1985. In addition to winning more World Cups and Olympic gold medals than any other team in the world during that period, the USWNT and its members have recrafted the very definition of what it means to be female in the 21st century. Few have made more of a collective difference than these trendsetters whose successes and challenges are reflected in the pages that follow. And, we submit, every good team needs a captain. We picked one for the ages.
Michelle Akers — Appearing in the National Team’s second-ever international women’s soccer game and its most famous game 14 years later, she quickly became America’s first dominant player, proving we could compete without embarrassment on the world stage.
April Heinrichs — Ferociously and unapologetically competing on the soccer field like no woman before her, she infused the team with a DNA that would span generations, and she later became the National Team’s first full-time female coach.
Mia Hamm — Discovered as a high school freshman and placed on the national team a year later at age 15, she would become America’s first female sports superstar and the reluctant face of soccer the world over.
Brandi Chastain — Others scored more goals and drew more fanfare until the instant in 1999 when she became forever known as “the one who took her shirt off” and landed women’s soccer on nearly every front page in America.
Briana Scurry — The first truly transformative yet misunderstood minority player, the self-described “fly in the milk” led the National Team as goalie through some of its greatest triumphs and most controversial moment.
Abby Wambach — A reluctant youth soccer player who dominated on the field despite her lifestyle and inner demons, she became the first Generation X and out team superstar as the sport entered a new century.
Hope Solo — The girl from the wrong side of the tracks parlayed scholarships and the generosity of strangers into a singularly dominant, yet controversial career as the nation’s female anti-hero.
Carli Lloyd — Originally derided as lazy and unfit, then cut from the National Team with unnerving regularity, the Jersey girl doubled down on effort every single time and became the proverbial lunch pail hero in the process.
Alex Morgan — Late to the pay-to-play soccer culture by modern standards, her knack for scoring big goals in huge games and girl-next-door smile made her the first-ever soccer pin-up model and Generation Y superstar.
Megan Rapinoe — Once known in soccer’s inner circle as a dependable player who showed up most in the biggest games, she emerged in the past decade as the out-and-proud voice of an entire generation of women in their fight for gender and wage equality.
Mallory Pugh — Still in high school when she scored a goal in her first-ever National Team appearance in 2017, she set what some see as a new example by walking away from a full scholarship at UCLA and turning professional at age 18.
Julie Foudy (captain) — Taking the lead from her mentor, Billie Jean King, the first female recipient of a soccer scholarship at Stanford led her fellow National Teamers on the field, and has remained one of the world’s most important voices in sports and gender equality.
Should My Daughter Play Up? The Question Never Goes Away
To play on age, or “up” with girls a year older? That is the question that has dogged my daughter and our family ever since U.S. Soccer’s controversial 2016 mandate that young American soccer players be grouped by their birth year rather than their school year. By then my daughter had already been playing soccer a few years and, because she was born in August and is the youngest girl in her class at school, the new rule would have taken her away from her friends and placed her back with girls primarily in first grade.
Instead, she moved into club or “travel” soccer that fall with many of her friends. My daughter joined a team whose coach promised she could play up if she proved to be good enough and unafraid of taller, faster players. She did and, within a game or two, became a starter who rarely came off the field. In my daughter’s third year with that club, the administrators enforced a hard-and-fast rule: all girls would play on age and no exceptions were allowed — even though U.S. Soccer’s mandate clearly gives all clubs the latitude to let children play up a year or two, but not down.
From a purely parental ego standpoint, those fall, winter and spring seasons were great; my daughter’s on-age team went 26-2, she scored goals in bunches and still has about eight trophies in her room from that year. Even then, though, my daughter knew she wasn’t really being challenged — so a year later she returned to her original, older team. The club didn’t like it, but finally agreed to make an exception.
For this coming fall 2021 season, what would be her sixth with the same club, the dilemma has returned; the administrators told us they would prefer to have my daughter to play on age again. Never mind that she is the starting defensive midfielder on the big field, 11 vs. 11, and plays almost every minute of every game.
Because I just wrote a book titled “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions” with National Teamer Joanna Lohman, in which we interviewed more than 100 all-time members of the National Team, I already knew how the players felt who had made it to the highest level. “I was always playing up from my actual age,” said Nicole Barnhart, a long-time backup goaltender to Hope Solo, who like Hope, started out as a field player. “You can get a false sense of yourself playing with kids your own age, especially if you’re a bigger person, growing faster or you’re just taller and faster than other children. Age is just a number. Children should be playing where their ability places them, not necessarily their age.”
THE COLLEGE PERSPECTIVE
Partly because this is a hot topic in my household right now, and partly because I knew it might lead to this column, I reached out to the more than 20 college coaches whom we interviewed in researching “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions.” None of them felt like the playing on age rule should be non-negotiable; all of them agreed, as Barnhart stated, that players should be on the team that’s most appropriate according to skills, development and playing time. In other words, if a child is playing up and is starting, playing more than half the game, that would indicate the proper placement.
I put a lot of stock in the words of Chris Petrucelli, who has been a coach in the U.S. National Team youth program for more than 20 years. The current coach at Southern Methodist University, he was a two-time national champion coach at Notre Dame and has numerous international tournament trophies on his resume. “I am in favor of players playing up if they can handle it physically and can be competitive at the older age group,” he told me. “If your daughter doesn’t yield to the older players, then I think it’s a great idea to play up.”
Some of the college coaches also cited another significant reason to allow children in my daughter’s circumstance to play with her school-age team rather than a birth-year team. As she gets older, not playing with the girls graduating in her same school year could put her a significant disadvantage in recruiting. College coaches focus most of their recruiting efforts one class at a time and will be much more likely to go to a game where most of the girls on the teams are projected to graduate at the same time. “I’ve seen some players get lost a bit,” said National Teamer Sam Baggett Bohon, head coach at Embry-Riddle University. “So, for example, if I’m looking for players for my 2023 class and a team has 12 of them vs. a team that has two of them, I’m more likely to prioritize my time during a busy tournament on the team where I can see more players in the same graduating class.”
Sam also told me that younger players with experience against older players can be a distinct advantage in college, since freshman are inherently playing up in most situations. International players in particular, she said, often come to the U.S. college system with a leg up. “It’s pretty common to find a graduating (international) senior having played with experienced older players if they’re good enough,” she said. “We do value this experience over an American player who’s playing predominantly with her own age.”
THE HIGHER GOAL — If you read the volumes of debate about the playing up topic on-line and in books, you’ll see that U.S. Soccer was broadly criticized. Participation in youth soccer has dropped off markedly since 2016 and some say it’s because children want to play their first games with their school buddies and, if they can’t, they’ll pick a different sport. U.S. Soccer is also criticized because the birth-year rule, while making it somewhat easier for coaches to pick the 30 best players in each age group nationally, results in challenging conversations and circumstances for thousands families and communities all across the country who struggle with this issue. “For the detractors of the switch, it's seen as a move that inconveniences many to serve a few,” said Mike Woltalla of the magazine Soccer America.
If a young player is truly special and stays on age and dominates, an argument can be made that the player will be more likely to be noticed by a scout for U.S. Soccer. No data backs up this thesis; but if it’s your goal to be seen as a someone who might be chosen to be on the U-14 U.S. National Team, then maybe it’s more beneficial to go out and score three goals in a U13 elite tournament game than it would be to, say, be an average starter in a U14 tournament game. “If she’s a U16 thriving amongst U17s, she will be noticed by college coaches,” said National Teamer and soccer Hall of Famer April Heinrichs, who was in charge of the youth programs at U.S. Soccer when it implemented the rule. “If she’s buried amongst all the older players, it wouldn’t be good — it would be better to have her play with her own age-group.”
Given the millions of American children playing the game, however, the odds are about 100,000-1 that any given soccer-playing child will make a youth National Team. Even if a child is playing high-level soccer at age 11 and above, the odds are still stacked mightily against making a national roster. The goal should be solid, incremental development with as little mental and family stress as possible. For children still playing high level club soccer in their teenage years, playing in college, even obtaining a scholarship, is a reasonable goal. Anything more than that is, honestly, a pipe dream for almost everyone. “So many players I ask: ‘Who wants to be a professional?’ They all raise their hands. I say, ‘Do you guys even know what that means?” said National Teamer Yael Averbuch on Page 99 of our book, Raising Tomorrow’s Champions. “That means you’re distancing yourself from the rest of this group.”
At age 11, my daughter will still state privately that she wants to make the National Team, but is savvy enough to know that simply making a good college team isn’t a given. In the meantime, I’ve concluded that I’ll nudge her toward the highest quality team we can find that projects her as a potential starter. It’s not fair to limit her long-term development because of some random age rule — and I’m thankful that our club has empowered our family to be part of that decision, even if they don’t always agree with us.
Pioneers: Stacey Enos, the National Team's First Tar Heel
INTRODUCING: Stacey Enos
COLLEGE: The University of North Carolina
PLAYGROUND PASSION: With no youth soccer or school teams to play for, Stacey started her athletic life on the softball field with girls and on the playgrounds with boys playing pickup soccer games. By age 14, Stacey found her way to Frisch’s, a soccer club team of mostly college-aged women. Though she has a twin sister, Romney, Stacey loved soccer so much she was prepared to move from Tampa to Miami to live with her aunt until Hillsborough County in Florida added girls soccer in to their school curriculum in 1980 in response to the landmark legislation known as Title IX.
THE TRYOUT THAT ALTERED HER COURSE: Stacey said she had her heart set on playing soccer at the University of Central Florida in nearby Orlando, where she might have joined future National Teamers Linda Gancitano, Michelle Akers, Kim Wyant and Amy Griffin. When UCF coach Jim Rudy turned her down — “I think he probably figured he couldn’t tame me,” said Stacey — her high school coach pointed her toward Chapel Hill, where the new coach at North Carolina was holding an informal tryout. “Anson (Dorrance) wanted to kick the living shit out of everybody and I thrived in that environment,” said Stacy on Page 134 of Raising Tomorrow’s Champions. “I did run into Jim Rudy about 20 years later and he told me he knew he made a huge mistake in not bringing me in.”
THE PLAYER WHO CHANGED EVERYTHING: Among the most infamous stories in American women’s soccer history, thanks to nearly four decades of telling and re-telling by Anson, revolves around Stacey’s sophomore year when April Heinrichs — named the American player of the decade for the 1980s — arrived by way of Littleton, Colo. As detailed in our book and numerous other publications through the years, some of the older Tar Heel players visited Anson’s office to express objection to the new recruit’s brashly relentless style of play — but Stacey makes it clear she wasn’t one of them. She sees a life lesson for young players everywhere in her approach to her tougher-than-nails teammate. “I absolutely loved it, because April Heinrichs made me a better player,” said Stacey. “Anson always matched us up in practice and me training against April every day, in preparation for match day, was more physical, more demanding than anything I was going to face from any of the teams we played.”
THE NATIONAL TEAM: Between her junior and senior years of college, Stacey was among the approximately 70 women who traveled to Baton Rouge, La., to attend what unknowingly became the first-ever tryout for the National Team. With fellow Tar Heel Emily Pickering Harner injured for the first game in Italy that summer, Stacey carried home the distinction of being the first of more than 60 of Anson Dorrance’s North Carolina players to have played for the National Team in the past 36 years. She was also instrumental in another major team legacy that has endured from 1985 to now: the chanting of “Ooosa, Ooosa, Ooosa AH” prior to every game. As detailed in Chapter 13 of Raising Tomorrow’s Champions, Stacey was, as ever, the instigator. “I think if there was a role that I played, it was to keep things light hearted,” she said. “We focused on the job at hand, but it’s also important to have fun along the way.”
TAKE ME HOME, COUNTRY ROADS: When leg injuries suffered in a car accident ended Stacey’s playing career after she had started 10 of the first 11 games in team history, she said her life was shattered in more ways than one. For a long while, she said, she felt shunned by the game as a gay woman attempting to enter what seemed like an exclusive coaching fraternity. Her National Team resume, however, helped her land her first coaching gig at Utah State University from 1996 to 2001, and then her longest-standing appointment of 16 years as the head coach at Warren Wilson College in Asheville in western North Carolina. In 2018 she became part owner and coach of the Asheville City Soccer Club, a member of the Women’s Premier Soccer League that boasts 130 amateur adult teams across the United States. Though North Carolina isn’t known nationally as the most enlightened place for two married women to raise their son, Stacey has found personal and professional fulfillment in the city formed around the confluence of the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers. “Asheville is the kind of small city where there’s no judgement; people here just don’t care about someone’s orientation,” she said. “People are just people, accepted for whomever they are and whatever choices they make as long as they’re kind.”
GRASS ROOTS SOCCER: With deep roots in the game, Asheville has become one of the Premier League’s true success stories, averaging 1,500 fans per game in a non-pandemic year and even selling out the municipal stadium for Pride Night with more than 2,200 people in attendance. Stacey was thrilled when one of her team’s star players from the 2018-2019 seasons, Jennifer Cudjoe, earned a spot on the New Jersey Sky Blue team of the National Women’s Soccer League. A native of Ghana, Jennifer had taken a circuitous route through the American educational system, with two small college teams in Oklahoma, another one in Ft. Kent, the northernmost town in Maine, before Stacey fielded a phone call from her coach Alex Smith, with whom Jennifer had just won a national Division III championship. “Without our team and our league, Jennifer probably would have had to leave the country to continue pursuing her dream,” said Stacey. “She developed into a better player here and look at her now. That’s what this is all about for me . . . growing the game I love.”
Pioneers: Emily Harner, Bound and Determined
INTRODUCING: Emily Pickering Harner
COLLEGE: The University of North Carolina
CLUB TEAM: Emily told us it was as if the soccer gods came to find her in her own neighborhood, with Gordon Bradley, the British player-coach of the New York Cosmos moving in just two houses away on Orlando St. in Massapequa, N.Y. Bradley had been instrumental in founding the Massapequa Soccer Club for boys in the winter of 1970 and local women, Liza Gozley and Nellie Haire, along with Gordon’s wife, Vera, soon started the push to allow girls to play, too. Emily was among the first in line at age 9.
OTHER SPORTS: “You name the game, I played it and I played it well,” said Emily, who starred in basketball, volleyball and field hockey and laments the single-sport mentality that has taken over youth athletics in the past 20 years. Berner High School on Long Island didn’t even add girls soccer as a varsity sport until Emily’s senior year, yet won the New York state championship its first season.
NATIONAL TEAM: Emily appeared in 15 games from 1985 to 1992, including the second game all-time on Aug. 21, 1985 at a tournament known as the Mundialito in Jesolo, Italy. Emily assisted Michelle Akers on the National Team’s first-ever goal, and then scored the second goal, giving the American team a 2-2 tie against Denmark. She retired seven years later after appearing in the only two games that year for the U.S., in August of 1992, both of which were losses to Norway.
TRUE GRIT: “Nobody messed with Emily Pickering,” said Emily, the second all-time National Team captain, who is now an insurance executive in Potomac, Md. That was a sentiment shared by her teammates at North Carolina and the National Team, including Michelle Akers, who credits Emily with establishing toughness as a core team value. By her junior year, however, a freshman would challenge Emily’s supremacy as ringleader. “April Heinrichs came in cocky and arrogant, and the members of my class thought we were pretty good, too.” Emily still remembers the one and only tackle football — American football — scrimmage among teammates when April came barreling toward her carrying the pigskin. “I was bound and determined to stop her in her tracks, which I did, but not before she plowed me over and I just had to hold on for dear life. Wow, that hurt, but I didn’t let her know. That was the mentality that we established together, that you win at all costs without cheating.”
DIGGING DEEP: Emily shared some conflicted memories of North Carolina’s legendary coach Anson Dorrance on Page 133 of “Raising Tomorrow’s Champions.” Even though Anson was just beginning his more than four-decade career when she arrived in the early 1980s, she said he already had an uncanny knack for motivating the players. “It was interesting. We could be practicing what we thought was pretty hard. And he could step out there and say, ‘Some of you aren’t giving 100 percent.’ You’d find yourself looking around. I’d think to myself, ‘Dammit, Stephanie, get moving.’ But then you’re thinking to yourself, ‘Well, maybe I could give a little bit more, too.’ The next thing you know, the practice has gone from mediocre to this incredible level. For some reason, you played to prove to Anson that you deserved to be there — probably because you knew there was always somebody who would come along and take your place if you didn’t.”
STAKING INDEPENDENCE: Emily said she hated wearing shin guards and preferred to play with her uniform sleeves tucked under her bra straps. By 1985, with the AIDS epidemic causing a global panic, shin guards became the rule. “They didn’t want blood being exchanged on the field. So I cut mine into the smallest shin guards imaginable — and I would start the game with my shirt sleeves down to keep the coach happy, but then I’d tuck them in again a few minutes later.”
LINGERING EFFECTS: Emily offers cautionary tales to parents and players, both from her own perspective and that of her daughter, Avery, a teenager who recently stopped playing club soccer due to chronic injuries related to concussions and iliotibial band syndrome from overuse of the knees. On one hand, Emily said, children who hope to progress to the highest levels of the game need to be practicing frequently with the ball in their own back yards or local parks to improve their skills. On the other hand, she said parents need to be sure the children are not being exposed to too much contact too young — and they’re allowing injuries to properly heal. Emily recently suffered health setbacks due to an autoimmune disorder and wonders if it could be related to frequent heading of the ball all those years earlier. She is among 20 National Teamers, including Michelle Akers and Brandi Chastain, who volunteered for a landmark study of female soccer players’ brains, known as SHINE, at Boston University. “There’s just so much we don’t know,” said Emily, who was inducted into the Long Island Soccer Hall of Fame in 2015. “It’s a great game. I’ll always love it. But I do know we need to be more careful.”