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Power Surge

The soccer players of the New York Power may look like a friendlier breed of pro athlete. Don't let the smiles fool you.

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Years from now, if cultural anthropologists look back at the exact moment when New York morphed into a women's-soccer town, they may well point to an epochal evening in May when a bunch of evangelists in shorts and cleats captured the hearts, minds, and feet of a new generation of ponytailed converts. It was an incongruous setting for such a paradigm-shifting event, a swath of grass nestled rather unhappily between a garbage-recycling plant and the Manhattan Psychiatric Center on Ward's Island. But it was there on a recent Friday that 160 girls from the Manhattan Soccer Club journeyed to love-bomb the New York Power, the local entry in the newly minted Women's United Soccer Association.

This being New York, behind every dribbling wizard and potential college-scholarship winner stood a heavily invested parent. "What are you waiting for, Sarah? Ask Tiffeny for her autograph," bellowed one anxious father, shoving his towheaded daughter toward Power star Tiffeny Milbrett, recently voted the top-rated women's soccer player in the world. Milbrett scrawled her name on the kid's shorts and jogged to the field, where about a dozen girls, much to their bug-eyed amazement, had been selected to scrimmage with the former college all-Americans and World Cup veterans who make up the Power. Imagine, for a second, the Knicks showing up at the Cage on West 4th Street, handing out jerseys to the regulars, and playing a pickup game to 21!

"Oh, my God, I'm so nervous," said Claire Staby, a feisty 17-year-old midfielder who is a junior at Brooklyn Friends. "What if I suck?"

She needn't have worried. Playing without shin guards, their socks rolled down in the universal soccer gesture of "Easy does it," the Power loped around the field, doing their best to make the girls look good. When Milbrett neatly laid the ball in the path of Holly Nord-Podberesky, a fearless, blonde 12-year-old, there was a collective intake of breath as the pint-size pre-bas mitzvah girl stutter-stepped around U.S. World Cup defender Christie Pearce and lashed a shot, low and hard. The goalie made the save, which didn't deter Holly's mother, Lisa Nord, from celebrating. "Tiffeny Milbrett passed my daughter the ball," she shouted, bounding off toward the Triborough Bridge. "Tiffeny Milbrett passed my daughter the ball."

It's been two years since the hyper-successful Women's World Cup was sold to a nation of soccerphobes on the tent poles of good old-fashioned jingoism and the wholesome personalities of the women doing the ass-kicking. But there's a difference between an isolated national celebration and a viable ongoing sports-business venture. How, you might ask, do the Power plan to slide-tackle their way into the wallets of local fans who, after a torrid two-week fling with the World Cup "soccer babes," have reverted to regarding the world's most popular game with the same xenophobic disdain that Paulie Walnuts evinced on a recent episode of The Sopranos: "You hear about that fuckin' stampede in Zimbabwe?" Paulie asked Tony. "Fuckin' soccer."

"What we're saying to girls is that if 5 percent of the players' attitudes can rub off on them, they can become a better person."

Say hello to the marketing of Nice. Fed up with paying the freight for all those Bible-thumping, coach-choking, drive-by-shooting male superstars? Looking for healthy, accessible role models for your kids? As the ad says, Come on out and "get empowered!"

It's family values meets the sort of postfeminist sex appeal that had David Letterman groveling at the feet of Brandi Chastain and Mia Hamm. "These women are all so incredibly positive," says Power general manager Susan Marenoff. "What we're saying to girls is that if 5 percent of the players' attitude can rub off on them, they can become a better person." Then she ramps up into full proselytizing mode. "Plus the players have these great athletic bodies. I mean, look what people saw when Brandi Chastain took off her jersey -- muscles! How empowering is that for a little girl?"

True, cobblestone abs and ripped arms have long been an inspirational sight in New York, but only if you have the attitude to back them up. This city has always liked its superstars ornery, outsize, blustery, ready to do battle with opponents and owners alike. The archetypal New York sports heroes -- Reggie Jackson, Lawrence Taylor, Mark Messier -- did not make nice.

And neither, as it happens, does Sara Whalen, the Power's homegrown star, who once decked an opponent in a high-school game after being body-slammed one too many times. "I don't play dainty soccer," says Whalen, whose loyal following at Power games seems to include everybody from her hometown of Greenlawn, Long Island, but the chief of police.

The Power play at Mitchel field in Uniondale, only a corner kick away from Whalen's hometown, right in the heart of a burgeoning grassroots soccer community. Uniondale may be a long psychic commute from the media vortex of Manhattan, but it's where the WUSA is placing perhaps its biggest chip in the hopes of carving out a niche in the national sports landscape. "New York is a key franchise," says John Hendricks, the league's founding father and a very rich soccer dad who owns the Discovery Channel, "but we have realistic expectations." Hewing to a modest business plan that calls for crowds of 6,500 per game, player salaries between $25,000 and $85,000, and tickets priced at $12 and $25, the league's owners, a cabal of cable-TV behemoths including Time Warner Cable and Comcast who have ponied up $64 million, are, according to Hendricks, "willing to lose money for five years, if that's what it takes to make this a success."

Seven weeks into the season, the Power are moving steadily, if not spectacularly, toward that goal. They're fighting for first place, and their average attendance, albeit goosed by the teen-idol hysteria accorded Mia Hamm's sold-out appearance two weeks ago, falls just shy of the mark.

In addition to Milbrett and Whalen, the Power is a polyglot collection of gregarious, wisecracking women that includes a defensive quartet who bark at each other in four languages: English, Chinese, Norwegian, and, as coach Pat Farmer says of Nel Fettig's native tongue, "Southern." ("I do get some funny looks when I call out 'y'all,' " says Fettig, a former three-time all-American at North Carolina.) They're also smart. Forward Jessica Reifer is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory and reads Kafka in the original German; defender Ronnie Fair was a two-time all-academic at Stanford; midfielder Emily Stauffer, an all-American at Harvard, of all places, commutes from Jersey City, where she teaches third grade; and reserve midfielder Beth Zotter scored 1590 on her SATs. "Hey, Zotter," Whalen teased one day in practice. "How stupid of you! What question did you miss?"

But only Whalen can lay claim to the title of "Long Island's own sweetheart," as she was introduced at the inaugural Power press conference. "Sweetheart?" Whalen says, laughing. "I can think of a few people who would take issue with that." An all-state performer in three sports -- track, basketball, and soccer -- at nearby Harborfields High in Greenlawn, Whalen was also your basic freewheeling, mischievous teenager. "I remember once in history class sitting by the window and thinking what a beautiful day it was," she says. "So when the teacher turned his back, I crawled out the window. Of course, I was busted."


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