BEIJING -- In 2003, back when she was coaching the Boston Breakers of the WUSA, Pia Sundhage was so underwhelmed by midfielder Angela Hucles that she finally gave up.
"I traded her, actually," says Sundhage, who uses the word average to describe Hucles in those days. "She had all the tools but she never changed speeds, so she was just hanging around the midfield. She was so predictable. So I said goodbye to Angela Hucles."
Well, now it's time to say hello to the most unlikely of Olympic soccer stars. Five years later, Sundhage is the U.S. women's coach, and Hucles, 30, is her most surprising player at these Games. Hucles scored twice in the U.S.' 4-2 semifinal win over Japan before more than 50,000 fans at Workers' Stadium on Monday, raising her team-leading goal total to four in this Olympic tournament and helping send the Americans to their fourth straight gold-medal game (and second straight against Brazil).
When forward Abby Wambach, the U.S.' best player, was lost to a broken leg before the Olympics, most observers expected that young forwards Natasha Kai or Amy Rodriguez would be the players to fill the goal-scoring role. And while both Kai and Rodriguez have found the net in this tournament -- along with five other U.S. players, a startling number -- it's Hucles who has started every game and been the team's most prolific threat.
"I wasn't sure exactly what my role was going to be after Abby got injured," Hucles said after the Japan win. "All of us were just waiting to see how we were going to play and what type of formation. We all just knew that everyone was going to have to step it up. More so than ever it's been a collective effort."
A midfielder for most of her career, Hucles has been playing as a withdrawn forward behind Rodriguez in the Olympics. But while Hucles had scored against New Zealand and Canada, I'll admit that I kept asking Sundhage (as recently as after the Canada game) why she wasn't using Rodriguez and Kai up front together with Hucles coming off the bench.
All Hucles did was strike for two more goals on Monday to prove me wrong. The first came in the 41st minute, when Heather O'Reilly made a run down the right side before lasering a pass through two Japanese defenders and two U.S. teammates that landed on Hucles' foot in front of the goal. And the second came on a freak play in the 80th minute, when Hucles struck from a ridiculously acute angle from 18 yards out on goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto (who had a shocker on Monday, reenacting Ronaldinho-vs.-David Seaman not once but twice).
Before the Olympics, Hucles had started only one game in '08, scoring three times in 620 minutes on the field. But Wambach's injury opened the door. "[Hucles] is amazing with the ball," says defender Heather Mitts, "but we really haven't seen that side of her because Abby's always been up top."
Hucles regained Sundhage's trust soon after the Swedish coach took over the U.S. job last December. "Something had happened," Sundhage says. "Because she decided to get fit and change speed [on the field], and that's what we were talking about [in Boston in '03]."
While Hucles says she has never talked to Sundhage about why she got traded from Boston ("It's a business," Hucles says. "I've never really asked her"), she also knows that she wouldn't be on this U.S. team under Sundhage unless she had made some drastic changes to her game in recent years. "If I'm not improving at this point then I shouldn't be playing," Hucles says. "So I think it's great that I'm able to contribute in this way."
The challenge, of course, will be to keep that up against Brazil in the gold-medal game on Thursday. Brazil has three goal-scorers who are more dangerous than the U.S.' on paper -- Marta, Cristiane and Daniela -- and yet tournament finals are not played on paper. Good thing, or this U.S. team, which has married solid performances with a sweetheart draw, might not stand much of a chance against Brazil (which smoked World Cup champ Germany 4-1 on Monday).
But the way Hucles is scoring, and the way this U.S. outfit has learned to play as a team, I'm not ready to count the Americans out just yet.