AN APPRECIATION

Michelle Akers, midfielder, U.S. women's soccer team

One in an occasional series.

By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

Michelle Akers was sitting on the ground, with ice bags on both legs, an ice pack on her shoulder, and sweat dripping off her face when a journalist asked her, "So, how does it look for Sydney?"

"I'll be throwing my body in there, trying to get to the ball," she said without missing a beat or an ounce of earnestness in her voice.

The scene was Annapolis, Md., a scant few days before Michelle Akers would be forced to face the end of her brilliant international soccer career in August 2000.

The foreshadowing came in the first half of a 1-1 tie with Russia in a little-publicized scrimmage at the University of Maryland. About 20 minutes into the friendly, she got tangled up with one of her marks and landed hard on her dislocated right shoulder. Minutes later, she came out.

You could see that, without Akers, without the one her teammates call Musafa (after the female lion in the movie "The Lion King"), that Team USA seemed lost without her. The Stars and Stripes gave up a goal in the first half, and had to rely on a late penalty kick for a 1-1 draw. Five days later, in Kansas City, the Americans failed to beat Canada for the first time in 20 matches, settling for a 1-1 tie. Akers played only the last 13 minutes -- and little did anyone know that they would be her last in the red, white, and blue.

"I watched these past three games, especially in Kansas City and I knew I had a decision looming. I was able to kind of step outside of myself and see the enthusiasm throughout the stadium for the team and for women's soccer and the (Women's United Soccer Alliance)," she says. " The advancement of the team and the whole sport, and how far we've come, I'm blown away by it. That day was real emotional for me because I was able to smell the roses before my last game was over.''

Two days after the draw, Akers did some soul-searching.

"(U.S. Soccer doctor) Mark (Adams) drove me home from practice and told me, ‘Look, you've got a lot of stuff going on here. Let's talk about life. Let's talk about what's best for Michelle Akers,'' "After talking with Mark and knowing that this (retirement) has been a day to day thought for the last seven months and the last three years since the last Olympics, his comment to me was to be sure you've given it all you've got because you don't want to kick yourself after its over. I walked out of his office crying and sad, but with the peace that I was absolutely making the right decision."

Akers' withdrawal of her name from the Olympic squad is at once a sad and a joyous occasion. Sad, because she was not allowed to finish her career in a game that really mattered, one in which she could control the destiny and flow of a championship game.

Several times, she has done so. In 1991, we were introduced to the young Michelle Akers-Stahl, flying down the left wing to snare the ball from between two Norwegian backs and their helpless goalkeeper to score a dramatic last-second goal in the first World Cup.

In 1995, we were introduced to the courageous Michelle Akers, playing on literally one leg in a World Cup semifinal loss. She has missed more than 150 matches due to injury, illness, and a continuing battle with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). If she had not missed those games, she would have likely set a record for international appearances or "caps" that would not have been broken by any athlete -- male or female -- in any sport.

In 1999, we saw Michelle Akers, the elder stateswoman. Moved back into a central defensive midfield alignment, she cleared with a forceful foot which was once exhibited on several Texas television stations while kicking footballs through the uprights. In the '99 World Cup, Akers was not expected to score; that was left to her more explosive teammates up front.

But 2000 was difficult for Akers. Still battling CFS, she underwent shoulder and sinus surgery in early 2000, and asked her body for one more try at the Olympics.

One need only look at Team USA's shoulders and faces during and after the closed scrimmage with Russia to understand exactly what Akers means to the team. After all, she is a living history of American women's soccer, having been there, some 15 summers ago, at a tournament in Italy.

The U.S. national team -- the inaugural version -- was clad in what looked like perriwinkle blue uniforms for that first tournament. Akers participated in the second-ever contest that Team USA played, and -- as she would do more than 100 times -- scored a goal.

Akers has seen it all -- the friendlies in such out-of-the-way places as Blaine, Minn., three World Cup finals, an Olympic gold medal. She has seen women's soccer go from a curiosity into a cultural paragon, one in which thousands are willing to drive hours and wait in miles of traffic to see their heroines play.

There are those waiting in the wings to take Akers' place, and even her number.

" It's weird realizing that someone else will be wearing the number 10," she says. "That's kind of hard to let go of.''

But few will ever replace what she has meant to women's sports in this country. And that's where the joy in the celebration of Michelle Akers can be found.

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