I'm pretty sure that I don’t have to tell you much about Brandi Chastain in order to introduce my interview with her.
Even those of you who weren’t paying attention to soccer during the 1999 Women’s World Cup probably know that she scored the winning penalty kick in the championship game shootout. And I know you all know what happened after that.
Over the last few years, Chastain has made a successful transition from the field to the television set. Starting tomorrow, she and Glenn Davis will call the U.S. women’s national team’s CONCACAF Olympic qualifying games for Universal Sports and NBC Sports Network.
The tournament, which will take place in Vancouver, starts tonight with a doubleheader featuring host Canada’s group.
You can see the schedule of games here. All games will be streamed live and free of charge on the websites of Telemundo and Canadian host broadcaster Sportsnet. Universal Sports will also stream games involving the U.S. free of charge on its website.
So here’s the interview with Chastain. She had a lot of pretty frank things to say about the state of American women’s soccer, and about a few players that those of us in the Philadelphia area know quite well.
The United States is playing Mexico in the group stage, and that has stirred a lot of discussion of Mexico’s win over the U.S. in World Cup qualifying two years ago. Do you think the U.S. will use that as motivation for this meeting?
Of course there is a sentiment that will always exist when you’ve lost to a team. I can tell you that years and years after the US lost to Norway in the  World Cup semifinal, four years later Julie Foudy was still saying, “We don’t want to have another feeling like we had against Norway.”
I don’t like when people call it revenge – it’s not really that, It’s just that you didn’t have a good last game against them, and you want to have a better one. Of course there’s going to be some feeling.
Were you surprised by that loss to Mexico? It seemed to be a wake-up call for a lot of people.
I think a lot of people went, “Whoa, what was that all about?” But I don’t think it was a complete surprise. The [results] as of late hadn’t been huge margins, and the law of averages says it’s not going to stay the same way every time.
I don’t think it was a complete surprise, but I still think things hadn’t been going as well as we had liked for a while now. That’s more perplexing than a one-game scenario.
Mexico’s team includes many players who played college soccer in the United States. Some of them are real talents, such as Atlanta Beat forward Monica Ocampo and Western New York midfielder Teresa Noyola.
In recent years, we’ve seen the U.S. men’s national team start to bring in more players from America’s vast Hispanic community. Should the U.S. Soccer Federation make more of an effort to do that on the women’s side?
If they don’t, I think it would be a mistake. I think like you said, on the men’s side that’s already happening, and I think to some degree it’s starting to happen on the women’s side too.
It’s natural, because families that come from Latino cultures are now embracing the fact that girls do play. If you looked 10, maybe 15 years ago, that wasn’t so much the case. But I think it’s changed here considerably, and you will find more Latino women’s soccer players than ever before.
And it’s a good thing, because it’s a break from the traditional style of American soccer. They grew up watching their dads or their brothers, or Mexican or South American teams. I think that’s a positive overall.
One of the U.S. players who has gotten a lot of attention lately is forward Sydney Leroux, the top pick in last week’s Women’s Professional Soccer draft. What do you think her potential is?
What I know of Sydney is she’s got a great athletic upside. I’ve seen her score goals at the college level and I’ve seen her score goals with youth national teams, so I think she’s got great potential.
She’s similar to Natasha Kai. They’re both raw talent, maybe didn’t grow up with as much technical work as other players. But I think that if a coach is worth his or her weight, he or she should be able to teach that into a player like Sydney.
I understand why [she’s gotten attention]. It’s like when you watch the NFL Draft, and you hear the prognosticators talk about whether you take a position player or the best player in the draft.
For the national team, it’s not like they need another goalscorer, even though they need a lot of goals. There are a lot of good goalscorers on the national team. I think we need players who can defend and go out from the back and play with the ball at their feet.
Adding another goalscorer maybe you don’t end up defending as much. So do you score more goals and defend less? We’ll see.
Speaking of goalscorers, Philadelphia Independence coach Paul Riley had something interesting to say about Amy Rodriguez recently. He basically accused U.S. women’s national team coach Pia Sundhage of playing Rodriguez out of position, as a deep-lying forward instead of as an out-and-out striker.
What do you think is Rodriguez’s best position?
I think she’s probably better not with her back to goal. So in that way, it’s better that she plays in a position under the forwards. But I don’t think she’s technically or tactically as polished as a player who plays in that [striker] position.
Amy survives and thrives when there’s a break - the ball’s through and she gets to run past people and mix it up a little bit.
It’s not to say that she’s not technical, she’s just not a sophisticated player. Like when I look at Homare Sawa. When I think back on national teams past, Michelle Akers – she was an outright striker, but when she had the ball at her feet she could make combination plays and run past people.
I think that [kind of] player has to be more sophisticated, and maybe that’s why [Rodriguez] is not in that position.
A lot of people in Philadelphia know about Carli Lloyd, and how much the Delran native has done in her U.S. national team career. Now she is one of the veterans on a team with a lot of young talent. What can she still offer to the team?
That’s a really good question. Carli, to me, is what I would call a tweener. She’s not an outright striker, and she’s not an outright regular center midfielder. She kind of lives in two spaces for me.
So I think it depends on who’s playing around her, and if they are playing well. Then it gives her a little more freedom to roam around the field a little bit. That seems to be her natural tendency.
Kind of like Amy Rodriguez, I think Carli is an opportunist. Even though I think she can play some good balls, I think she leans more towards being an attacking player.
This is not disrespectful to say – I think all great players have to have a sense of ego to them, to want to go to goal. I know Carli clearly has that, because she does things that I think are just not appropriate at the right times. But some of them work out for her.
Okay, time for a prediction. Will the U.S. qualify for the Olympics?
I’m terrible at these things, but obviously Canada’s bracket is one team easier than that of the United States. They don’t have to play Mexico in the first round.
I see Canada and the U.S. making the Olympics, with a very close game [for Canada] against Mexico in the semifinal. That’s hard for me to say, because I think Mexico has improved immensely.
But I am a big fan and have been of John Herdman, who took over the Canadian team not long after [last year’s] World Cup. I met him in New Zealand and felt that not only his passion, but his vision for what can happen in women’s soccer is very good.
I think there are enough good athletes and good soccer players to play a much better style, that suits Canada a little bit better than what they have been playing. Though I think they’ve had a good evolution – I think Carolina Morace was very good for their program, even though the World Cup was not at all what they had hoped.
In your opinion, do the United States have to beat Mexico in the group stage in order to qualify?
I’d say yes, because the game against Canada could be a coin toss. It could be one sided or it could be a 1-0 game. I think it leans more towards a 1-0 game.
Coming out first in that group with Mexico I think assures them an easier – not easy, but easier – game in the semifinal than it does if you have to play Canada.