Weathering the Storm Her players shaken by the collapse of their pro league, April Heinrichs guided the U.S. to an opening win by drawing on her own difficult past

September 28, 2003

After the most chaotic week in U.S. women's soccer history--one
marked by a hurricane, a blizzard of pink slips and the small
matter of hosting a World Cup--the perfect remedy was right on
the noggin of national team coach April Heinrichs. Pulled down
tightly over her eyes, Heinrichs's white game-day visor called to
mind a set of blinders shutting out all but what was unfolding
before her on Sunday: namely, a 3-1 Cup-opening win over Sweden
at RFK Stadium in Washington. Only six days after the unexpected
collapse of the WUSA, their three-year-old pro league, had left the Yanks unemployed and inconsolable, they unleashed a breathtaking
display of skill and resilience.

And, perhaps most of all, brute strength. From the 13th minute,
when goalkeeper Briana Scurry flattened Swedish striker Hanna
Ljungberg outside the penalty box to draw a yellow card, the
Americans led a parade of hits and knockdowns that left their
European guests woozy and fearful. "It's the World Cup," Scurry
said. "You've gotta bring it, and if you don't, you'll go home
early." By bumping off the world's fifth-ranked team, the U.S.
(ranked No. 1) put itself in a solid position in the toughest of
the four first-round groups. With a win in either of this week's
matches--against Nigeria on Thursday in Philadelphia or North
Korea on Sunday in Columbus, Ohio--the Americans should advance
to the quarterfinals.

"In coaching, you're either a jackass or a genius," Heinrichs,
39, said after Sunday's win, fully aware that she'll morph into
the former if the U.S. doesn't raise its third World Cup trophy
on Oct. 12. Few other skippers on the planet must shoulder such
lofty expectations--Brazil's men's soccer coach, for sure; the
New York Yankees' manager, perhaps--and none must do so as the
standard-bearer for a gender (a female coach has yet to win a
World Cup) at a time when the future of the sport is at stake.
"It's a high-pressure job," defender Brandi Chastain says.
"Everyone's looking to you for the answers, and everyone has a
critical eye."

Since taking over for Tony DiCicco, in 2000, Heinrichs has
tirelessly tinkered with formations, adding new wrinkles. That
versatility was on full display on Sunday, when every one of
Heinrichs's moves paid off. On a field softened by rains from
Hurricane Isabel, she tapped 5'11" strikers Cindy Parlow and Abby
Wambach to start alongside Mia Hamm, and they pounded the Swedes
into submission. (Hamm provided all three assists.) Heinrichs
also inserted rugged midfielder Shannon Boxx, who, after never
having played for the U.S. until this month, scored in her third
straight match. What's more, Heinrichs surprisingly benched
midfield general Aly Wagner, 23, and entrusted the spark-plug
role to 32-year-old Kristine Lilly, who slammed home the opening

The burden of managing her players' anxiety over the sport's
future will also fall to Heinrichs, who is well suited to the
task, having been raised in challenging circumstances. Born April
Minnis in Denver, she has never met her biological father. Her
mother, Patricia, married a fireman named Mel Heinrichs when
April was six, and the family moved to a house in the suburb of
Littleton. Eight years later the couple divorced, and Patricia
moved out. "For some reason my mother and I never connected,"
April recalls. "There was never any doubt that I'd stay with
Heinrichs, my dad."

April fondly calls Mel "the great savior," the man who let her
hold the wrench while he was repairing his Harley, who played
football and basketball with her in the park, who tossed a
Frisbee with her for hours. "We had the common thread of sports,"
she says. "That sort of saved me and gave me direction." Mel
Heinrichs died of cancer two years after April graduated from
North Carolina, having had the chance to see her win three
national championships there, launching a playing career that
included a 1991 World Cup title and ended with her induction as
the first woman in the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame.

Over the past decade April has grown closer to her mother, who
has worked as a dorm mom at April's summer soccer camps. "The
thing about me is, I don't spend too much time on the past or the
absence of it," she said. "I spend a lot of time on goal setting,
which is all about the future. It's a good coping mechanism."

In other words, until the U.S. run at the World Cup ends, expect
Heinrichs to keep that visor on, and pulled down low.

COLOR PHOTO: MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS A GENIUS (SO FAR) Heinrichs's pre-Cup emphasis on versatilitypaid off at RFK. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES IN CONTROL One of three potent U.S. forwards, Parlow (12) provedtoo much for defender Hanna Marklund to handle.