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Foreign Aid The Carolina Courage tapped into the international pipeline and came up champs in WUSA's Year 2

Sept. 02, 2002
Sept. 02, 2002

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Sept. 2, 2002

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Foreign Aid The Carolina Courage tapped into the international pipeline and came up champs in WUSA's Year 2

Birgit Prinz, the Carolina Courage's fearsome striker, is German.
Courage midfielder Tiffany Roberts is American. One day not long
ago they were discussing the differences between European and
American styles of women's soccer. "Americans, you run and then
you think," Prinz said. "In Europe we think first, and then we
run."

This is an article from the Sept. 2, 2002 issue

"Birgit and I get along great," Roberts says, smiling, "but she
made it sound like they're smarter than we are."

The running debate isn't so simple, of course, but for now the
Yanks aren't in much of a spot to argue. When the WUSA kicked off
its inaugural season last year, one of its appeals was the
strength of its cosmopolitan cast, which allowed organizers to
brag that--unlike their counterparts in MLS--they had built the
best league of its kind in the world. Yet nobody imagined that
the foreign contingent would dominate the WUSA the way it did
this year, providing five of the top six goal scorers, all three
MVP finalists and, in the Courage's Prinz and midfield maestro
Hege Riise of Norway, the top two players on the league's
championship team. "What I told Tiffany was a little joke...and
a little truth, too," Prinz said last Saturday after her goal
had helped Carolina beat the Washington Freedom 3-2 in Founders
Cup II at Herndon Stadium in Atlanta. "Sometimes you don't have
to run everywhere. You can just read the match."

Of the 30 international players from 13 nations in the WUSA this
year, none have had a greater impact than Riise, 33, and Prinz,
24, who spearheaded the Courage's rebound after the team finished
last in 2001. Though French striker Marinette Pichon of the
Philadelphia Charge won the league's MVP award, most players
thought it should have gone to Riise. "What she does with the
ball is amazing," says Carolina defender Carla Overbeck. "She'll
get served a piece of junk, and she'll turn it into a
goal-scoring opportunity. Once or twice every game we're going,
'Holy cow!'" It was no coincidence that Riise led the league in
fouls suffered during the regular season, with 56.

On Saturday, Riise merely scored the game's opening goal, despite
suffering from a strained left hamstring that prevented her from
practicing all week. But as Prinz says, sometimes you don't have
to run everywhere to read the match. "I don't focus too much on
winning the game," Riise says of her approach. "I try to focus on
how I can play the ball well to other people. If I'm involved in
the game and everyone else does their jobs, the result will be
there."

For her part, Prinz scored more goals than anyone else in the
league (12) after June 1, the day she made her Courage debut
seven games into the season. (The WUSA allowed her to join the
team late so she could stay with her German club, FFC Frankfurt,
during its run to the European title.) Prinz was the linchpin of
Carolina's off-season overhaul, in which coach Marcia McDermott
replaced nearly half the roster from last year's bottom-dwellers.
"We didn't just bring in talented people, we brought in players
who would work well with Hege," says McDermott, the WUSA's only
female coach. The handpicked newcomers included midfielder Unni
Lehn, who plays with Riise on the Norwegian national team, and
starting defenders Danielle Slaton (the No. 1 pick in the draft)
and Nel Fettig, both Americans.

Carolina's ability to come back from last place without firing
its coach wasn't the only lesson from Year 2 in the WUSA. A few
of the others:

--Mia Hamm has her mojo back. After returning from knee surgery in
June, soccer's distaff icon regained a verve she hadn't displayed
since 1998, scoring eight goals--a league-leading one for every 63
minutes played--and carrying the Freedom to the title game. Though
not fit enough to play an entire 90 minutes last Saturday, Hamm
came on as a halftime sub and electrified the crowd with a
breathtaking goal, slicing through two Carolina defenders and
unleashing a perfectly angled shot to cut into the Courage's 3-1
lead.

--The product got better in 2002. It wasn't just that scoring was
up but also that teams looked better doing it, maintaining
possession longer and creating more chances for goals. "Without
question there was a higher level of play," says WUSA
commissioner Tony DiCicco, the former U.S. coach. "There was more
sophistication all around, and it showed in the games, many of
which were played at an international level. In the off-season
the coaches looked at what they needed for their teams, and they
handpicked players that in most cases were attackers instead of
defenders or goalkeepers."

--Soccer is still a hard sell in the U.S. The bad news: Per-game
attendance dropped 14%, from 8,104 to 6,969, while Nielsen
ratings on PAX averaged a tiny 0.1, or about 100,000 households
on a network that reaches 90 million. The good news: After
burning its entire planned five-year budget of $40 million last
year, the league saw expenses fall 28% and revenues leap 43% this
year, thanks to staff cuts, increased corporate sponsorships
(including backing from McDonald's and Coca-Cola) and relocation
of the league office from New York to Atlanta. What's more, the
WUSA's cable-company investors (including Comcast, Cox
Communications and AOL Time Warner, parent company of SI) have
committed to funding the league through the end of the 2006
season. "We're not there yet," says first-year CEO Lynn Morgan,
"but we have passionate fans and investors to go with sponsors
who believe in this league."

--Sex appeal can be a double-edged sword. When the league sent
glamour shots of selected players to Playboy.com before the
season, it risked alienating its core fans (read: families with
young girls) in an effort to woo hormone-addled males. But while
Hef's folks did conduct an Internet poll in search of the WUSA's
sexiest player (won handily by Philadelphia defender Heather
Mitts), the lad mags were notably absent in Atlanta last week.
The Maxim spreads may yet come, of course, and if they do, well,
sometimes you get what you ask for.

It was refreshing to be dazzled last Saturday by Prinz and Riise,
two players who didn't appear in the poll but who nevertheless
reminded everyone that the sport itself can be infinitely more
attractive than a photo spread. "This is a great moment, to have
the trophy and feel our fans celebrating around us," Riise said.
"Just talking about it gives me goose bumps." With that, she
pulled out her digital video camera and began recording the
scene, a warm memory to be replayed on a cold winter night in
Norway.

COLOR PHOTO: GARY BOGDON (LEFT) RIISE AND SHINE The Courage celebrated with its Norwegian star (above, left) and kept Hamm titleless.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BAZEMORE/AP [See caption above]

World Order
Players from abroad dominated the top of the WUSA scoring charts
this season.

2002 WUSA GOAL-SCORING LEADERS

PLAYER TEAM COUNTRY GOALS

1. Katia San Jose Brazil 15
2. Marinette Pichon Philadelphia France 14
3. Birgit Prinz Carolina Germany 12
4. Danielle Fotopoulos Carolina U.S. 11
Charmaine Hooper Atlanta Canada 11
Dagny Mellgren Boston Norway 11