Mighty Mite Message from the U.S.: Overlook tenacious 5'2" Tiffeny Milbrett at your own peril

September 24, 2000

Beaten and bedeviled, Norwegian women's soccer coach
Per-Mathias Hogmo stood on a podium at the Melbourne Cricket
Ground last Thursday and pondered the questions: What went
wrong? How had the U.S. just smothered Hogmo's 1995 World Cup
champions 2-0 in the opening match of the Olympics? "Well,"
Hogmo said, as though the answer were obvious, "those two early
goals from Mia Hamm really did something to us."

Talk about stewed Pers. On and on Hogmo praised Hamm's hegemony,
neglecting one small fact: Hamm hadn't scored both goals. What's
more, not once in his five-minute-long soliloquy did Hogmo utter
the name of the other goal scorer, the American who last week did
more than anyone to steer her team safely through the toughest
phase of the most treacherous draw in Olympic soccer history.

Her name is Tiffeny Milbrett, and her fame, like her 5'2" frame,
is remarkably undersized. How many people know that Milbrett led
the U.S. in goals (three) at last year's World Cup, or that she
scored the gold medal winner against China at the 1996 Olympics,
or that, at age 27, her 80 career goals rank her No. 7 (with a
bullet) on the alltime international list? A shifty, skittering
dynamo, Milbrett was far and away the Americans' most dangerous
player last week. Against Norway she scored the first goal and
slammed shots off the right post, the left post and the
crossbar--a rare shooter's cycle. Then on Sunday, Milbrett's
unexpected 35-yard blast won the corner kick that led to the lone
U.S. goal against China, a header by co-captain Julie Foudy. The
1-1 tie left the U.S. needing only a draw against winless Nigeria
on Wednesday to reach Sunday's semifinals.

Yet while teammates Hamm, Foudy and Brandi Chastain plug
everything from shampoo to sports drinks to beer, Milbrett hasn't
signed any major endorsement deals since the World Cup. When The
Today Show came calling in Melbourne last week, Katie Couric
interviewed the so-called Big Five American players: Chastain,
Foudy, Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Carla Overbeck. Milbrett was
nowhere in sight. And if you want to buy Milbrett's U.S. jersey
at a sporting goods store, good luck. Nike sells only Hamm and
Chastain shirts, even though Milbrett is a swoosh-sponsored
player from Hillsboro, Ore., a 10-minute jog from Nike's
headquarters.

Of course, if women's sports were a meritocracy, then Milbrett's
mug would be a fixture on your television screen. It doesn't help
her profile that she plays alongside Hamm, the most prolific
international scorer in the history of the sport. Then there's
"the Anna Kournikova syndrome," as Chastain puts it. "If you're
not the most beautiful player or if you don't have a
million-dollar smile or if you're not 5'11" and a model size,
then even when you do good things, you have to do double,"
Chastain says. "We've talked about that, and I'll say, 'Millie,
you deserve more. You have to know in your heart that you're
worthy.' She's capable of great things, but she's
underappreciated."

It's a shame, really, because the story of Milbrett and her
mother would make for a dynamite shoe commercial. At 55, Elsie
Milbrett-Parham still competes on Sundays in the over-30 division
of Portland's Northwest United Women's Soccer League. A
fiber-optic assembly worker, Milbrett-Parham raised Tiffeny and
her older brother, Mark, alone. (Tiffeny says she hasn't seen her
father since she was a child.) From the time Tiffeny was 10,
Elsie would bring her along to soccer practices, often letting
her play forward while she was a defender on the opposing team.
"We'd go at it," Elsie says. "She loved it when she beat me, and
I'd love it if I shut her down." Adds Tiffeny, "I learned the
game from her. She's still a darned good player."

According to Milbrett-Parham, it "hasn't been an easy road" since
the World Cup for her chronically snubbed daughter. In The Girls
of Summer, Jere Longman's recent book on the U.S. women, Milbrett
was quoted as saying that she couldn't wait for the most
recognizable American veterans to retire, and soon she had some
explaining to do. "Everybody was a little taken aback," Milbrett
says, "but I also told them, 'I said that well over a year ago,
and I definitely don't feel that way now.' A lot of things have
changed, and those changes have all happened this year."

Certainly the most striking difference has been new coach April
Heinrichs, who took over last January after Tony DiCicco
resigned. Milbrett and DiCicco had clashed over her fitness and
her game decisions, and Milbrett says she has been liberated
under the new regime. "They've given the game back to us," she
says.

Evidence of the revolution came during the team's first practice
session under Heinrichs, in February, when assistant John Ellis
trotted onto the field, placed the ball on the ground and walked
silently away. Nobody moved. "Normally when you put the ball down
on the ground, that means, Go!" Milbrett says. "To me that was a
symbol of how much the team had been relying on the coach to tell
us what to do." Milbrett also remembers the coaches saying later
that week, "You guys are asking way too many questions. Just play
the game!"

Now unshackled, Milbrett has learned to trust her scoring
instincts again. "Tiffeny needs great freedom," Heinrichs says.
"What we've tried to do is say, 'Players are going to make
mistakes, but it's a players' game.' Our job isn't to micromanage
every decision they make. Because then players, particularly
women, become afraid to make mistakes. And when you get players
who are inhibited or fear being criticized, then you don't have a
very healthy environment."

Not that everything has changed for Milbrett, who still lives up
to her nickname, No Tact Tiff, on occasion. She's not afraid to
say that the Americans played "like Scheisse" in the World Cup,
even though they won. Nor does she recoil from confrontations.
While taking a walk through Melbourne last week, Milbrett and
Chastain came upon an open-mike forum for antiglobalism
protesters who had congregated at the World Economic Forum.
"Raise your hand if you're wearing Nike shoes!" shouted a chap
over the microphone.

Milbrett raised her hand--and put a target on her back. A woman
standing next to her immediately unleashed a verbal barrage.
"Well, who makes your shoes?" Milbrett fired back.

Clearly the protesters didn't realize that Milbrett and Chastain,
who were dressed in street clothes, were soccer players. "You're
probably a bloody f---ing American, too!" the man at the mike
yelled. "Yeah," Milbrett screamed, as Chastain hustled her away,
"I am a bloody f---ing American!" Say what you will about her
rhetorical skills, it's instructive to note: It was Milbrett, and
not the voluble Chastain, who engaged the hecklers head-on.

In any case, the exchange should hardly displease Milbrett's shoe
sponsor, which is finally beginning to act as though she exists.
Next spring Nike plans to market a T-shirt bearing the likenesses
of Hamm, Chastain and Milbrett, and in May it did a test run on
Milbrett jerseys at a U.S. team game in Portland, selling 18 at
$70 a pop. Though that may not presage a national campaign, at
least Elsie no longer has to pay $30 to have a print shop stencil
her daughter's name and number 16 on a blank jersey, as she did
before the '99 World Cup.

In the meantime, Milbrett's torrid first week enhanced the
prospects for a gold medal rematch between the U.S. and China,
which has become one of the most compelling rivalries in sports.
So mark off Sept. 28 and keep this in the back of your mind: The
U.S. has only one victory against its foil in their last seven
games. But if there's gold at stake, take note: The Americans do
have a feisty, 5'2" secret weapon to call on.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON BRUTY RUN OF THE MILLIEThe speedy Milbrett kept Norway keeper Bente Nordby on (and off) her toes in a 2-0 U.S. win. COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN? Captain Foudy and her Chinese counterpart, Sun Wen, hope to reprise their gold medal showdown of 1996.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)