Before Mia, Brandi, Julie and Kristine, there was Michelle -- the mighty lioness.
When the first U.S. women's soccer team was formed in 1985, starting forward Michelle Akers was just a sophomore at the University of Central Florida. By the time she retired from the national squad in 2000, at the age of 34, she had established herself as a world-class player while helping turn Team USA into the team to beat. She also hung up her cleats knowing that the sport was in good hands on the home front, with stars Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy and Kristine Lilly serving as global ambassadors for the game.
"Michelle was the bridge," Foudy says. "She was one of the greatest players ever, but kids now don't necessarily know who she was because there was so much less exposure back then. The game was really just starting with her."
Akers' résumé should be required reading material for young soccer players. She was a four-time All-American at Central Florida. She scored 105 goals in 153 appearances for the U.S. She earned the Golden Boot as the leading scorer (10 goals, including five in one game) at the inaugural Women's World Cup, won by the U.S. in 1991. She won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Summer Games and another World Cup in 1999. She was voted FIFA Woman Player of the Century, alongside China's Sun Wen. And in 2004, Akers and Hamm were selected by soccer great Pele as the only women on his list of the 125 greatest living players.
Above all else, Akers is known in soccer circles for her relentless work ethic, for getting the most out of her size (she is 5-foot-10), strength and speed. "She always wanted more criticism," says North Carolina head coach Anson Dorrance, who guided Akers on the 1991 World Cup squad. "She kept asking for more, and I was thinking at the time, 'Are you kidding me?' Any flaw I did mention, she would correct it immediately. I'd see her after practice, perfecting whatever we had talked about."
Akers had always made a habit of outworking her competition, ever since picking up the game as an overactive fourth-grader growing up near Seattle. But fate delivered an ironic twist during the prime of her career, when she confronted a foe she couldn't beat with additional sprints or extra reps: In 1994, doctors diagnosed her with chronic fatigue syndrome, an affliction that usually stymies all strenuous activity.
"When she was diagnosed, she had to seriously adjust," Foudy recalls. "She thrived on working herself into the ground, and she had to learn how to back off."
Of course, backing off meant something very different to Akers than it would to most everyone else. While she was forced to curb her intense workouts before and after practice, she continued to dominate because of her superior understanding of the game and on-ball technical skills.
"She was a phenomenal athlete in every respect," Dorrance says. "She was an impossible mark; no one could match up with her. She was the most complete women's soccer player in our history."
A player kids should know.
-- Jaime Lowe, special to espnW