Monday, December 29, 2014

Michelle Akers is ready to 'get back in the game'

Somewhere out there in this country is a 12-year-old girl who is a big fan of the United States women's national soccer team, but doesn't know about Michelle Akers.

Michelle Akers is ready to 'get back in the game'

Michelle Akers during her playing days. Here she´s celebrating after scoring a goal against Brazil in the 1999 Women´s World Cup. (Eric Risberg/AP file photo)
Michelle Akers during her playing days. Here she's celebrating after scoring a goal against Brazil in the 1999 Women's World Cup. (Eric Risberg/AP file photo)

INDIANAPOLIS - Consider the following scenario.

Somewhere out there in this country is a 12-year-old girl who is a big fan of the United States women's national soccer team.

She has a poster in her bedroom of Alex Morgan, or Abby Wambach, or maybe Carli Lloyd or Hope Solo.

That girl is old enough to be heard loud and clear across any stadium where the U.S. women play.

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But she wasn't born yet when Michelle Akers was a household name.

Yes, the 1999 Women's World Cup was that long ago. And for much of her time since retiring, Akers has been happy to remain out of the spotlight.

Two years ago, Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl talked to Akers as part of the magazine's "Where Are They Now" feature. Akers was - and still is - working on a farm in an Atlanta suburb, helping to rescue abused horses.

The first sentence of Wahl's story was as follows: "One of the greatest women's soccer players of all time almost never touches a soccer ball anymore."

That might not be the case for much longer.

A few months ago, Akers realized that she was ready to return to a public place in the American soccer community. The NSCAA Convention provided a perfect opportunity to do so.

On Friday morning, she officially announced her renewed presence. Akers gave the keynote speech at the annual Women's Soccer Breakfast, and blended deep honesty with a tremendous sense of humor. With many of her friends and former teammates looking on, Akers lit up the room and drew much laughter during her remarks.

To legendary coach Anson Dorrance, Akers said: "You recruited me to UNC and I said no... but I never won a national championship. So you still kicked my [behind]."

To newly-hired U.S. women's national team coach Tom Sermanni, Akers said: "You're so lucky that you did not have me as a player, though I'm sure I would have loved having you as a coach."

To Kristine Lilly, who was a frequent running partner in national team practices, Akers said: "You're my favorite player of all time."

But she couldn't help adding: "I'm still faster than you."

And to Julie Foudy, whose talent and charisma have earned her a job with ESPN, Akers said: You came in [to the national team] as a prom queen... Did you even have your driver's license?"

Foudy was not the least bit insulted.

"Laughing out loud," she wrote on Twitter during Akers' speech. "Glad she hasn't changed one bit. Love her."

Akers concluded her remarks with words that many in the room had been waiting for some time to hear.

"It's nice to be back," she said. "Not that I was gone, but it's great to be back in the fold, in the family."

After the breakfast concluded, and after almost everyone in the room had come to Akers to get a picture, I got a chance to ask her some questions.

Here's the transcript of our conversation.

You said when you were on the podium that you had a moment when you realized that you wanted to "get back in the game," and re-connect with the soccer community. What prompted that?

It was my conversations with Mike [Wilson], my good friend [and now business partner in a soccer training firm], and just kind of realizing that it was time. That's how I do everything else. That's how I knew when I was going to retire; that's how I knew I was going to do horse rescuing. So I just realized over time that, okay, I'm ready now. I'm going to do it.

When was that?

It's been ongoing. I think I said that I wanted to go to the convention. It was last August or so. That's when I decided: let's pursue it, let's jump in, let's go for it.

When you watch the national team now, they've continued to be culturally resonant. A new generation of players, such as Alex Morgan, is gaining celebrity status. What are your reactions as you see their success?

It's exciting. It's awesome. It's fun to see the team still kicking [behind], and still being the best in the world. It has been decades now since those players [she points around the room] and I, my teammates, we started it and built it, and [the current players] are standing on our shoulders.

They are keeping that legacy going and doing more with it, putting their own twist on that. So it's exciting to see them doing well, and keeping their part of the deal.

In addition to winning, they are also getting recognition from the public. How rewarding is it to know that you helped build that part of it too?

It's way cool, because that was our goal from the beginning. To be a recognized, appreciated sport - soccer in general, men and women. But also there's a second layer to it with the female athlete. So to be recognized as a legitimate power, and with legitimate ability, is very rewarding. I get to see those guys hang in that environment, and it's cool.

With that said, the new generation of fans - young girls and teenagers who are playing soccer now - was not watching in 1999. They are watching now. Do you ever think about that and reflect on there being a whole new generation, a second generation, of fans? And maybe they don't know all the history. Will you coming back into the public sphere help teach that history?

I don't really think it's the second generation of the fans. It's actually the fourth generation of fans. It began in '91, and then it has kind of built over the years. But I get that the youngsters say "Michelle Akers? Huh?"

I've got reading glasses. I could be old. But I don't care, because the legend of our team is still very much the center of this team. And so our current national team players are the heroes - awesome. That's all I want. It doesn't have to be me.

It's good to know the history, but I just want them excited about the game, identifying with some incredible people who just happen to be soccer players, and then taking that and putting that into their lives and running with it.

Lastly, do you talk to any of the current players? Have any of them sought to talk to you in order to learn from you?

No, actually. Every once in a while I'll run into a couple of them, and they're all "Oh, Michelle Akers! What are you doing?" And the answer is: nothing. But we connect. They know who I am, and it would be one of my goals to support them and help them in whatever unique way I can. 

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
About this blog
The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, U.S. national teams and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

Reach Jonathan at jtannenwald@phillynews.com or 215-854-2330.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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