By Tim Nash
When the USA was playing France in a tense Olympic first-round match Saturday, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Tisha Venturini were on a field in Winston-Salem, N.C., with 130 little girls giving a clinic.
“We actually made it through the camp without anyone telling us what happened in the game,” says Hamm. “We threatened the parents with severe punishment if anyone told us what was going on.”
So at 9:00 pm that night, Hamm, Lilly and Venturini Hoch, who have over 300 goals in nearly 800 games for the U.S. women’s national team between them, were free to gasp, cheer, and bite their nails like the rest of us.
They, of course, have a more than normal interest in the success of the USA in major tournaments. They are, after all, among the players who helped raise the expectations of the U.S. team to today’s dizzying heights. They have five Olympic Gold medals hidden away somewhere. And they certainly knew the stakes of Saturday’s game.
France is widely considered one of the of few team capable of ending the USA’s run of three straight Olympic titles, and a loss in group play to the French, while not fatal, could cause a momentum shift away from the U.S. to the French who would all of sudden know they can beat the Americans.
When Hamm, Lilly and Venturini Hoch finally knew the final score, they were proud and relieved like the rest of the country.
“France is one of those teams that makes you nervous,” says Hamm. “You have so much respect for them that at times you play a little bit conservatively. Hope (Solo) made some big saves and I think the defense responded well.”
Lilly, the world’s all-time leader in international appearances with an astounding 352 caps, saw a noticeable difference in the U.S. team from the first half to the second.
“France came out and kind of took control of the first half,” says Lilly. “The U.S. came out in the second half and said, ‘We are going to make something happen.’ That mentality the U.S. had to finish a goal was great.”
There’s That Word Again?
We’ve heard it a lot lately, especially during and after the France game. We’re told the USA’s mental edge is something other countries can’t handle. We heard it from Carli Lloyd. Jill Ellis talks about it after games. We heard it from commentators on TV like Kate Markgraf, Danielle Slaton, Angela Hucles, all former national team players who should know.
Anson Dorrance, the head coach at the University of North Carolina who coached the USA to the first-ever Women’s World Cup championship in 1991, calls it “that indefatigable human spirit that the U.S. women have in spades.”
So how exactly did mentality help the U.S. defeat France? Hamm, Lilly and Venturini Hoch lived through the days when it was created and perfected both at UNC and with the national team. It starts with a choice to commit to the work involved in it. Then it moves into a style of soccer and eventually becomes a lifestyle.
“I think part of it is that you are playing for a country that wants to be the best whenever you step on the field,” says Lilly. “That started early when Anson started coaching the team. Our mentality in this country is that we want to be the best in everything we do.
“Against France, when our players came out for the second half, they were thinking, ‘Yeah, we weathered a little bit of a storm, but now we’re going bring something else,” says Lilly. “Every little chance they had on the field to make a little bit of a difference, the U.S. players were going to do it.”
Lilly saw the mentality at work when the USA got the game’s only goal in the 63rd minute.
“When Tobin Heath created that chance to take a shot, it goes off the post and Carli is right there,” says Lilly. “It’s not a weird thing that Carli was there. She was there because she wanted to score a goal.”
People remember the big moments. Everyone knows Carli Lloyd scored the goal. Most people know Tobin Heath’s shot created the rebound that led to the goal. But those who know about mentality see more, like effort and pride and a total commitment to every little moment of the game.
“It’s about that commitment to getting back on defense and getting forward into the attack,” says Hamm. “The U.S. had so many players in the box when Tobin took that shot. And at the end of the game, it’s about committing to get back behind the ball and be organized defensively and win every aerial ball. They were committed to putting that game away.
“And you see Carli make these tackles in midfield,” adds Hamm. “They are conscious tackles. They send a message that you are not just going to run through our midfield. If they are going to run through the midfield, they are going to pay a price for it. The next time the player gets the ball, she is going to be uncomfortable and she might play it quicker than she wants to.”
Good and Getting Better
None of the three former players think the USA has played as well as it is capable yet. The first two games, they say, have been good enough, though.
I think they are building momentum,” says Venturini Hoch. “In the (2015) World Cup, they didn’t look all that great in the first few games, but by the end they were by far the best team. I think that’s what is happening. They have two wins and one against the number-three team in the world. They have to be feeling pretty good. They couldn’t be in a better spot.”
Entering the final game of group play against Colombia with two wins is, of course, exactly where the USA wanted to be. Hamm knows that both of the first two games carried unique challenges which the USA was able to overcome and produce two confidence building wins.
“The first game of an Olympics or World Cup is always tough with all the nerves and anticipation, especially for the first-timers,” she says. “You look forward to it for so long and it seems like to takes forever to come. You are trying to control all that emotion as you go in, and then knowing that New Zealand will play a tough physical game, makes it more difficult.
“Then against France, they had to change one of their center backs,” she adds referring to Whitney Engen replacing Julie Johnston, who had a slight groin injury. “When you change the personnel in your central defense, no matter how much you talk about it, it takes time. They did an incredible job in such a short period of time. Everyone was on the same page, and you saw that in the second half.
“I’m excited to see what happens in the next game,” adds Hamm. “It will be interesting to see if they rest some players. As a coach you are always worried that if you rest players you might be getting someone out of their rhythm. But this team is so talented, so dynamic and so deep, it’s fun watching.”
Paying it Forward
It’s interesting, the words Hamm, Lilly and Venturini Hoch choose. When they talk about the current national team, it’s not “we” or “us.” They don’t talk about the team as if they are still part of it. In the larger sense, they will, of course, always be members of the U.S. national team. But their choice of words can be interpreted as retired players who have moved on. They’ve had their day. Now it’s someone else’s turn.
That, by no means, makes them dispassionate bystanders with little or no interest in the current or future state of the game.
That’s why they had to watch the USA-France game five hours after kickoff. They were busy working with 130 kids age eight to 12, passing along their knowledge, experience and passion to the next generation.
“It’s a chance for us to come to help the next generation,” says Lilly. “When we were growing up, our role models were male athletes. For me, it was the New York Yankees. We didn’t have that female face in front of us. So, for us to be out here with these girls helps them think that maybe someday they could be in a World Cup, the Olympics, coach kids, anything.”
They do it under the banner of Team First Soccer Academy, a company Hamm, Lilly and Venturini Hoch formed to work with the grassroots level of soccer. Roughly 10 times a year, Team First puts on clinics around the country. After Winston-Salem, they were in Raleigh, where Team First partnered with Blue Cross Blue Shield promoting BCBS’s Live Fearlessly campaign.
“We talk to kids a lot about getting outside that comfort zone, living fearlessly,” says Hamm. “We tell kids that mistakes are a part of life. It’s important how you respond — picking yourself up and really going after it in whatever you do, going after whatever your dreams are both on the field or off the field.
“These kids are worth it,” she adds. “If we can give just one player confidence — not necessarily to play at the highest level or even a higher level — but with whatever they were dealing with on the field or off the field, it’s worth it.”
Tim Nash is a freelance writer and author of the new book, “It’s Not the Glory, the Remarkable First Thirty Years of U.S. Women’s Soccer.” To purchase a copy click here