Revamped, re-focused for gold
BEIJING -- It would be easy to put on my TMZ hat to write about
I don't think I'm taking a wild guess here by speculating that when it comes to male sports fans, Mitts is the most Googled female University of Florida alum
But the TMZ approach would be missing the point with Mitts. For starters, she recently turned down an offer to bare all for
Right now it's all about the soccer anyway for Mitts, 30, who has already won an Olympic gold medal and an NCAA title. When the U.S. women begin the defense of their 2004 gold against Norway on Wednesday in Qinhuangdao (7:45 a.m. ET, MSNBC), Mitts will almost certainly be the starting right back just months after it appeared that her recovery from an ACL injury would keep her off of the team.
"A lot of people don't realize that I really didn't start playing with this team until April," says Mitts, whose torn ACL forced her off the '07 World Cup team and into the ESPN broadcast booth. "I had another setback in March, and I knew I didn't have much time to give myself an opportunity to make the squad. It was stressful -- kind of a do-or-die thing. But luckily Pia knew what I was capable of."
First-year U.S. coach
That ugly long-ball approach the U.S. played in the World Cup? It's long gone. "People watching our games will see a possession-oriented style, I hope, because that is what we've been doing for nine months now," Sundhage says. "Everybody on the back line is comfortable with the ball."
It's no surprise, then, that Sundhage has chosen Mitts and
The operative word for Sundhage's players is to be
"She loves having the outside backs attack and be active going forward, so for me it's been fun to have that freedom," Mitts says. "I know that I'm going to make mistakes, but at the same time she's been so patient with us. She knows that by taking risks that's going to happen, but we're confident going forward now."
The sad irony is that Mitts was doing exactly what she was supposed to -- initiating an attack down the right side instead of just booting a long ball upfield -- on the passing sequence that led to star forward
Wambach's absence should force the U.S. to play even more on the ground, but it also means there are more unknowns about a U.S. team heading into a major tournament than ever before. Wambach and
"Obviously, losing Abby's a huge blow, especially so late in the game," says Mitts, who will have to take on a bigger leadership role as one of the team's few remaining veterans. "We're going to have to adjust. But I do think that we're a deep team and we're excited about our chances even now."
Few soccer-watchers are accustomed to seeing the U.S. women in an underdog role. With Wambach's injury the Americans are the clear No. 3 choice in this Olympic tournament behind two-time defending World Cup champion Germany (which has never won Olympic gold) and Brazil, which thrashed the U.S. 4-0 in the '07 World Cup semifinals.
But maybe the unexpected circumstances will give this young U.S. team an opportunity to show off the bravery that its coach is demanding. Mitts, for one, knows that while she has a long-term future in soccer -- from television commentary to perhaps hitting 100 caps to joining a major-market team in the new WPS league -- the highlight of her playing resume might well be dependent on what takes place in the next three weeks here in China.
Then again, bravery isn't a new concept for Mitts, who took a deep breath in 1999 and ran with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.
"It's one of the coolest things I've ever been a part of," she says. "We were on a three-week tour of Europe, and I was with my best girlfriend and her brother. We decided to stop in the city and see what it was like, and next thing you know, we got talked into actually running with the bulls.
"The first group runs out, and then they ring another bell and let the bulls out. So we looked at each other.
Now imagine that scene on a soccer field in China with a ball at Mitts' feet and bulls -- check that, huge German and Brazilian defenders -- rushing at her with a full head of steam. Will she push forward? Will she be brave? Will her teammates?
We're about to find out.