Positive goal models
After years of media appearances and post-match press conferences, they were all well-versed in answering the questions reporters typically ask.
But nothing prepared them for the barrage of questions from another source: curious, forthright girls who had never heard of “no comment” and who just wanted to know what life was like for soccer stars Brandi Chastain, Tiffeny Milbrett, Danielle Fotopoulos and Jenni Branam.
“Do you have a big house?” one young voice asked, causing everyone gathered on the grass in front of the former women’s national team players to erupt in laughter.
Chastain was particularly amused.
“Well … yes,” she said, smiling in the direction the question had come from, even as Branam quipped, “I wish someone would give me a big house.”
“What color was your first uniform?” another girl asked.
“Orange, yellow and black,” Chastain said.
“Mine was reversible gold and blue,” Milbrett replied.
The question-and-answer session continued in that vein at Plantes Ferry Park last week. Former players Chastain, Milbrett and Fotopoulos and current national team player Branam were in town to help run a two-day soccer clinic organized by club team River City S.C.
“My whole intent was to bring some top female athletes to the Spokane community and for the girls to have a chance to interact with players who were at one time in the top five in the world,” said clinic organizer Dale Silha, vice president of River City S.C. “It’s something that hasn’t been done before here, and it was just a great opportunity for the girls to get to know the players a little bit.”
For several hours each day, the four women ran drills, signed autographs and tried to pass on a career’s worth of knowledge and experiences to the next generation in women’s soccer.
Chastain, Milbrett and Fotopoulos were each integral in the birth of women’s soccer in the United States. Milbrett, 34, is an all-time leading scorer, and Chastain, 39, became a household name after scoring the winning goal on a penalty kick in the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup to give the United States a 5-4 win over China.
Their generation catalyzed the growth of U.S. soccer.
“People say that to us all the time, that we changed the game, but I don’t think I really understand it still, what we did for the game,” Fotopoulos said. “We’re just doing what we do. It’s our passion, and we want to spread the game. And fortunately, we get to share it with other people.”
The women know how important it is for girls to have mentors.
An Orlando, Fla., native, Fotopoulos spent time with soccer legend and fellow Orlando resident Michelle Akers in her formative years.
“I was like her ball girl,” Fotopoulos said. “I would go fetch balls for her, and she was one of my role models. That’s how I found out about the national team.”
Milbrett and Chastain grew up during the heyday of the now-defunct North American Soccer League. From their hometowns in Hillsboro, Ore., and the Bay Area, respectively, Milbrett and Chastain found their first soccer heroes in the men who played for the Portland Timbers and San Jose Earthquakes.
“My mom would pack us up to go watch those games, and I fell in love with Clive Charles, Willie Anderson and Jimmy Conway,” Milbrett said. “I was able to watch them on TV, so I could identify with them as soccer players.”
Growing up in the Northwest, Milbrett also had another advantage that Fotopoulos and many other female athletes of that era didn’t – a progressive environment that supported women’s athletics.
“Soccer in the Northwest has always been ahead of its time,” Milbrett said. “In fact, my mom’s been playing soccer for longer than I have. This whole community has been ahead of its time at offering leagues and teams for these women to play in. Women’s athletics has been accepted up here for as long as I can remember.
“I’ve heard a lot of stories of women who had to play with boys while growing up in other parts of the country. I never had that. Every sport that I wanted to play had been offered on the girls’ side.”
River City S.C.’s Silha said the West Coast has always been a soccer hotbed, especially California. But in recent years, teams in the Northwest have started catching up to the Golden State in terms of quality and number.
“Washington in particular has become more competitive,” Silha said. “We actually do very well in national competitions even though most of the dominant clubs tend to come from the west side of the state. But that’s also a numbers game: Six-eighths of the population live on the West Side.
“I think Spokane has been getting better. There’s more emphasis now on developing basic skills for kids earlier in their careers so that by the time they get to 14, they have a good grasp of fundamentals. That hasn’t been done in the past.”