Mia Hamm, soccer

One in an occasional series.

By Al Mattei

There are images of Mia Hamm that will be remembered forever.

There's the glamour girl in the Prell shampoo commercials. There's the figure taking the fourth penalty kick in the final of the 1999 Women's World Cup, glowering like a lion. There's the wreath-bedecked veteran singing an off-key version of The Star-Spangled Banner in Athens after winning the gold medal for the last time.

And there's the figure in white jutting her thumbs at the nameplate of her jersey worn for her final half in an U.S. uniform in December 2004, a nameplate that bore the surname "Garciaparra."

But if there's one picture that captures the essence of one of the finest players ever to lace on a pair of boots, it is from 2002, originally published in the Washington Freedom's official calendar.

Mia Hamm, it must be remembered, was recovering from bone lesions in her left knee and played only the second halves of most games that season. She is on the bench in the photo -- no, she's half-standing on the bench, her fingers picking at a roll of athletic tape to wrap her leg (she didn't use a trainer for the task; she trusted only herself to do the job).

Her eyes are cast towards the field, studying what was happening, taking it all in with those large brown eyes that seem to see everything. In the background, the stands are half-empty, but the determination on her face penetrates the paper on which this black-and-white photograph is printed.

This is the essential Mia, the quintessential Mia. The one who could process information and think more quickly than her opponents could react. The one who was self-reliant and carried water and soccer balls for her teammates without anyone having to ask.

The champion who worked hard and sweated when nobody was watching. When 90,125 were watching. And even in the final days of the Women's United Soccer Association, when less than 8,000 were watching.

Mariel Margaret Hamm excelled in all phases of the game of soccer -- except, perhaps, the game of leadership. Role-modelship, yes. Leadership, no.

In an interview in 2001, she pointedly said, "If the league is going to work, it has to be about all the players."

She was extremely uncomfortable with the role of team captain, both on the club and on the international level. She relinquished the captaincy of the Washington Freedom in 2002, and, oddly enough, the team got better. Hamm was playing only in the second half of most matches as a substitute, and she amassed a strike rate that was pretty much unheard of in first-class soccer.

That string had started June 12, 2002 in a home match against the Boston Breakers. She came into the match in the 56th minute, and scored less than seven minutes later on a wonderful angled goal in which she twisted defender Angela Hucles six ways to Sunday.

It was the next year, however, when she picked up with attacking partner Abby Wambach to not only win the WUSA Founders Cup, but to pair with her for the American effort in the 2003 World Cup and 2004 Olympics.

While Hamm got a lot of publicity -- even to the last game played at the Home Depot Center -- it must be remembered that she could not have won that Founders Cup, the bronze medal in the 2003 World Cup, and 2004 Olympic gold without Wambach, who took a lot of pressure off her -- tactically and, most importantly, mentally.

At times, Mia Hamm fussed at herself for not doing more on the field, and got down on herself more than anyone else if her team lost.

We may never know if something in Hamm shut off something whenever she felt like she was getting too much attention; after scoring a pair of goals in the 1999 World Cup opener against Norway, she had only one goal in the run of play the rest of the way.

She had just two markers in the 2003 Women's World Cup and just two in the 2004 Olympics -- not necessarily the result of bad play, mind you, but the attention foisted on her made other international teams change their tactics to stop her and force the Americans to find someone else to score.

The magic of Mia Hamm is that she did find that someone else, whether it was old pal Kristine Lilly, Wambach, or youngsters Heather O'Reilly and Lindsay Tarpley.

But after more than 275 games and 156 goals scored, Hamm is putting away the boots, putting away the athletic tape, and casting those blazing eyes away from the field.

Well, at least for a while. You get the feeling that she will be involved in a meaningful attempt to get domestic professional women's soccer back up and running.

And if it does, we can thank Hamm and her generation for it.