Power Surge

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.”

At the University of Connecticut, she was considered the greatest player in the school’s illustrious soccer history and certainly the best ever to wear a tongue stud. “I don’t think Sa (pronounced say) ever lacked for boyfriends,” says Christie Pearce, her closest friend on the Power, referring to Whalen by her nickname. “She likes to make the scene, and she goes all out in the way she dresses. It’s no surprise that she chose to live in Manhattan rather than out here on Long Island with the rest of us.” To see Whalen, all suppleness and coltish verve in her tight leather pants and tank top, cutting loose on the dance floor at Float is also to get a sense of the glam quotient and pedal-to-the-metal energy she brings to the soccer field. “Sara can burn you with her speed,” says Power coach Pat Farmer, “but she’s also not afraid to get in an opponent’s face when necessary.”

Pat Farmer says the secret is in this city’s DNA. “People here will knock you down in a supermarket for a loaf of bread,” says the Power coach. “They’ll smash your car to get on the L.I.E. If we just pinged the ball around, played six or seven touch passes to get into the attack, we’d be laughed out of town. This is not a place for little namby-pamby people.” A burly, barrel-chested man with a wide, ruddy face and a gray mustache, who built Ithaca College and Penn State into women’s-soccer juggernauts, Farmer looks like a cross between the actor Wilford Brimley and an offensive lineman gone to seed. He exudes a kind of Falstaffian jollity that belies his intensely competitive nature. Warm and fuzzy he’s not. “I remember once when I was at Ithaca going by the football coach’s office and he called out to me, ‘Hey, Pat, you’re a big guy and I heard you were out with the fellas last night, drinking, cursing, and shooting pool. Why the hell do you coach women?’ I looked at him and said, ‘Coach, I’ve got women playing for me who could kick your quarterback’s ass.’ “

Gro Espeseth would be the likeliest candidate for the job – assuming she knew what a quarterback was. At a muscularly compact five feet six, the Norwegian defender rules the air with imperious authority. “Gro is the single best competitor I’ve seen in any sport,” Farmer says. “Before the season, I talked to her about being captain. After all, she captained Norway to a World Cup. She looked at me and said, ‘I can be very hard. Maybe next year after I’ve helped the rest of the team become hard, I will be captain.’ She’s a true warrior. She goes into a tackle and announces herself. Bam. Here I am.

Farmer sometimes looks like he is about to implode, the blood pooling in his face like bubbling lava. One day in preseason, after the Power gave up three “soft” goals on set plays, Farmer erupted, and it was only Tiffeny Milbrett who kept the locker-room walls from buckling. “Pat’s an emotional guy, sometimes too much so,” says Milbrett, the team captain, “and I thought he was being a little too harsh with his words, so I told him. I said, ‘Listen, you’ve got to give us time to come together as a team. We’re going to make mistakes, and we’re going to learn from them. But yelling at us is not going to make us play better.’ There was silence, and everybody walked away uncomfortable. I know we’re taught the coach is the be-all-and-end-all authority and you don’t cross the line. But I felt I needed to.”

Just now, Milbrett is sitting on the floor in the living room of the nondescript two-story Colonial in North Bellmore, Long Island, that she and her teammates Christie Pearce and Jennifer Lalor lease for $2,700 a month. The house is 3,000 miles from the piney, small-town ambience of Hillsboro, Oregon, where Milbrett grew up among the Birkenstocks-and-Starbucks crowd. “I can’t say New York was my first choice,” Milbrett says of the WUSA dispersal draft in which the members of the U.S. World Cup team were parceled out to eight different cities. “I was hoping to be placed on the West Coast, nearer my home.”

“There is a double standard in sports. Can you name a single male athlete who’s getting endorsements solely on the basis of his looks?”

As much of a dreamscape for a female athlete as a professional career is, there is something stripped-down, rented, and lonely to the life. The backyard is unsodded and the furnishing sparse, save for four TVs and piles of sports magazines. Milbrett’s most prized possession appears to be the gleaming black Chevy S-10 4WD flatbed with the Oregon plates in her driveway, which she received for being selected female athlete of the year by Chevrolet, beating out Mia Hamm.

Dressed, as usual, in T-shirt and shorts, she talks about the sweet vindication she feels, having, at 28, finally been recognized as the No. 1 women’s player in the world. “I feel I was never given some of the opportunities my teammates had,” she says. “I’ve had to work so hard for respect. I fought and fought and fought for every ounce of playing time. I came off the bench to score the winning goal in the Olympics. Boom. Then I score three goals in the World Cup and think that will catapult me to another level of respect. But afterwards, I’m still a role player.”

You can perhaps forgive Milbrett for never feeling fully comfortable on the celebrated national team, where she toiled in the penumbra of her attacking partner, Hamm, the It girl of women’s soccer. When the bandwagon jumpers of Corporate America came calling for the Girls of Summer, they pursued the glam stars of the team, like Chastain, Hamm, and Julie Foudy, all of whom received a commercial windfall. “I don’t begrudge any of my teammates their success,” says Milbrett. “But I do believe there is a double standard in sports. Can you name a single male athlete who’s getting endorsements solely on the basis of his looks? I call it the Kournikova syndrome. She’s not won a damn thing. That’s absolutely absurd.”

Of course, No Tact Tiff, as Milbrett was known at the University of Portland, has never been afraid to speak her mind. “Am I a role model?” she asks. “It all depends on your definition. I’m not sure parents would want their kids to emulate everything I’ve done. When I was younger, I was a total candy freak and I used to shoplift Paydays and Jolly Ranchers. Oh, well, there goes my image.”

The image that Americans have of Gao Hong is of the prone and sobbing bookend to Brandi Chastain’s jersey-doffing dance of joy at the 1999 Women’s World Cup. When Chastain’s penalty kick billowed the net behind her, the proud Chinese goalkeeper, who had guessed right but could not propel herself through the air with enough velocity to make the save, rolled on the ground as if she had been shot.

“There was a time when it was a very painful memory,” the Power goalkeeper says now through an interpreter. “I cry a lot. But then I realize that God let the United States win, so what can I do?” Then she smiles. “You should thank me,” she says. “If I save the kick, maybe we win the World Cup and the new league is in China, not the United States.”

This remark triggers paroxysms of laughter from her audience of Chinese-American journalists and local Chinatown pols who have come to Jing Fong restaurant to welcome their compatriot to her Brave New World. Gao frequently cracks herself up, her handsome, roundish face crinkling up in stages until she is shaking her reddish-brown bowl cut in raucous merriment. Suddenly, she is convulsed looking at a letter of support from the local Chinese community that has been presented to her by a man named Rocky Chin, who is running for City Council. “The word Power,” she giggles, whispering to her translator, “is spelled wrong.”

Gao’s smile masks a ferocious competitive zeal. “She will do anything to throw you off your game,” says Milbrett, remembering how daunting it was to face her in the World Cup. “Sometimes she lets out this scream charging out of the goal, and other times she’ll simply look at you when you line up to take a free kick and smile so that your concentration is broken. The key was never to look at her before you shot.”

Now that’s a problem for other teams. “Thank God for Gao,” Milbrett continues. “She saved our butts in the first two games.” Those were both desultory scoreless draws, and the only thing that kept people in their seats was Gao’s daring acrobatics. After one scissorlike kick save, she clapped for herself and motioned her defenders over. Pointing to her toe, she exclaimed, “Amazing. I am amazing.”

Gao has been ingratiatingly cooperative with the American press, but her smile disappears when asked about the recent Chinese-U.S. diplomatic standoff over the downed spy plane. “I am a soccer player,” she says peremptorily, “not a politician.”

Her teammates could tell that the incident weighed on her, even though nobody said a word about it. “There was some talk about holding a team meeting to clear the air,” said forward Jessica Reifer. “But we decided to leave it alone. I have talked to her a little about what it was like playing for the national team in China, how regimented the environment was – training at 6 a.m., everybody in the same dorm, lack of freedom. Most Americans look at it as negative, but it’s just a different culture.” When Gao is not training or going to Nassau Community College to learn English, she spends her days hanging out with her roommates, Power defender Gro Espeseth and forward Ann Kristin Aarones. “I never dreamed I would come to New York and live with two Norwegians,” she says, laughing between bites of beef chow fun. “But it has been good. They teach me English and Norwegian, I teach them Chinese. I think my English and Norwegian is better than their Chinese.”

Aarones says Gao sometimes gets homesick and watches a video of her family she made before she left China. “And she calls home every day,” she adds. “We have the same phone bill, so Gro and I will be checking it very carefully.”

There are, however, encouraging signs that Gao is slowly adapting to American culture. She likes watching the Cartoon Network because “it’s a good way to learn the language.” And certainly Gao is always expanding her English vocabulary. She claims to know only a handful of key words, most of them soccer-related: “Keeper. Switch. Away. Man on.” The next day at practice, however, it is clear she has mastered more than she lets on. When goalkeeper coach Greg Kenney drives a corner kick, high and swerving, into the penalty area, Gao rushes out of the goal to snare it but mistimes her leap. The ball deflects off her fingertip into the net. “Oh, shit,” she yells in perfect English.

As the towers of the triborough Bridge fade into the dusk on Ward’s Island and the Manhattan Soccer Club’s scrimmage with the Power sweetly draws to a close, Pat Farmer watches his brief professional career pass before his eyes. He watches as Elia Monte-Brown, a student at Hunter High School who is going to the University of Southern California on a scholarship, slides, cleats first, into a sprightly 12-year-old, sending her crashing to the turf. “Please,” says Farmer, alarmed by the kamikaze play, “keep that girl away from Tiffeny.” You can understand Farmer’s concern – he’ll be back coaching college if his franchise player is stomped by an overzealous teenage defender – but he has only Milbrett and the rest of the Power to blame. Theirs is a loud, brassy, fender-bending New York kind of game, and it may be good, but it sure as hell isn’t nice.

Power Surge