By John Philip Wyllie
From the start of the fourth quadriennial Women’s World Cup one of the biggest concerns about the U.S. team and its chances of winning its second consecutive world championship was the age of its players. With a dozen veterans from the incredibly popular 1999 championship team returning this year, and most of those players now into their 30s, there was considerable concern that this team might not be able to compete with the younger teams being fielded by soccer powers such as Germany, China, Sweden, Norway, North Korea and Brazil.
Off to a promising start in dispatching Sweden, Nigeria, North Korea and Norway and headed to Sunday’s semifinal against highly-touted Germany in Portland, it appears as if those fears were unfounded. Rather than worn out, the veteran players on the U.S. team seem better than ever. They have aged like a bottle of fine wine.
The senior-most member of the U.S. team is co-captain Joy Fawcett. Fawcett starred locally last season for the San Diego Spirit. At 35, this mother of three can still run like a gazelle, stick to an attacking player like a barnacle and disrupt an attack like a monkey wrench thrown into a gearwheel. Fawcett has been the key to America’s nearly impenetrable defense, a defense that has allowed only a single goal in four games.
“She is the glue that holds this team together,” said her coach April Heinrichs after a Fawcett’s magnificent performance against Sweden on September 21. “Joy was wonderful. She is our iron woman in the back and she makes wonderful decisions.”
Fawcett, with 17 years worth of national team experience, reads the game of soccer like few others. She is the team’s leader on defense and can anticipate what the opposition will do almost before they do it. Her uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time is one of many things that make her special.
“I am more confident and experienced now,” Fawcett said earlier this year. “I am able to read the game a lot better. I can see things and I know the game so much better than I did just a few years ago. Having that experience is huge.”
Experience is one thing, but how can Fawcett compete against players that were in some cases too young to attend kindergarten when her national team career began? Conditioning.
“Physically, I’ve been working on my speed to make sure that I can keep that up and people are saying, hey, you look fast. I’ll take it, but I think I just read the game better and that makes me look faster.”
Fawcett astonished the soccer world two years ago by returning to the field just one month after giving birth to her third child. Her magical recuperative powers are the stuff of legend, but anyone associated with the team will tell you about her incredible work ethic and determination.
“Joy is someone you don’t have to worry about fitness-wise,” says her teammate and close friend Shannon MacMillan. “She knows when she is not fit and that is when she will stay after practice and do that extra bit or she will do it on her own. She is such a great natural leader. Day in and day out she gives it everything she has.”
After 17 years on the national team and four World Cups, Fawcett is expected to retire from the national team either at the conclusion of this tournament or following next year’s Olympic Games. She hopes however, to continue playing for the Spirit next season if the league is successful in its attempt to reorganize. Her focus now however, is on retaining the World Cup title the U.S. secured in 1999.
Fawcett and her teammates face their biggest obstacle to that goal on Sunday when they take on powerful Germany in Portland at 4:30 ( ESPN2). If they can find a way to defeat them, they will play for the World Cup championship on Sunday, October 12 in Carson, California at 10:00 a.m. in a game that will be nationally telecast on ABC.