When I was asked to interview Brandi Chastain, the most infamous of all Brandi Chastain pictures started a replaying in my head.
Even now, I can still picture her penalty kick, ripping her shirt off, and flexing as she celebrates. During the interview, I kept thinking I'm speaking to that picture, the most famous of U.S. Women's World Cup images used in advertising to this day.
Talking with such an icon (someone so famous for an act and an image that she almost ceases to be a person) is surreal, for lack of any better word.
Starstruck isn't quite the right word.
There wasn't any nervousness, awkwardness, or cowering from important questions. In fact, no longer was someone from U.S. soccer mythos a two dimensional moment in time. Brandi ended up being a very approachable, even-keeled, oftentimes soft-spoken person, different from the soccer analyst persona she portrays during televised matches.
For 15 fleeting minutes, I was able to talk with Brandi Chastain about soccer. Our conversation ranged from her current plans, the state of the women's national team, women's professional soccer in the United States (the WPS), and her observations on the current state of American soccer.
Currently, Brandi is the spokesperson for the Capital One Cup. The Capital One Cup awards a NCAA Division I college in both men's and women's athletics with $200,000 for student-athletic graduate scholarships. The winner of the award is announced during the ESPY's in July.
The Cup awards points from 13 different men's and women's sports, usually the lesser known sports, and this is one of the reasons why Brandi agreed to support the cup.
She's a self-ascribed "sports junkie," and she wanted to help create an "equal playing field" for sports with lesser sports and publicity.
*Right now, Auburn leads the men's standings and Stanford the women's. More information can be found at Capitalonecup.com.
All of this makes sense coming from a women's soccer player.
Always the red-headed stepchild, it doesn't take much for Brandi to transfer her experience to other sports without the following of major college athletics. Still, she has her favorite, in this case, Santa Clara University, where she has finally convinced her husband to let her volunteer with his women's soccer team.
Also, while she would never admit to it, it seems she had a slight bias towards the California teams (again making sense as she grew up there), pointing out that Stanford was currently leading the women's standings.
This week, ESPN announced that Chastain would be added to their analyst team for the Women's World Cup this summer, and we were able to talk about her thoughts on this U.S. team's chances to win the cup.
There was a definitive pang of sympathy in her voice as she spoke. She mentioned previous interviews, and how with each interview she realized the pressure was mounting for this team, especially since the women hadn't won the tournament since 1999.
But that didn't mean that she thought they were favorites or that her personal expectations were for the team to make the finals.
She pointed out that Brazil was strong, skillful and tactically aware. Germany had won back to back World Cups, something not done by any other team in Women's soccer.
Plus, once player experience (or lack thereof), player psychology, chemistry, and the importance of accepting roles on the team or in a particular match...it was clear that at the highest level, uncertainty truly reigned, for this U.S. team as well.
Even without the nuances that come into play during the tournament (something Brandi would have a better idea of than myself), I hadn't thought of the amount of time that had passed since the U.S. had won the Women's World Cup.
Personally, I had looked at the team and assumed the team was as dominant as ever. I was even aware of the recent struggles and changes to the team coaching and first-team players.
Still, the team's reputation and their past accomplishments had colored my viewings. I told myself it was always just one simple setback, but after speaking with Brandi, I wondered, was she part of a golden generation gone from women's soccer in America?
So we spoke about the future of the team. What challenges did the program face?
Her response mirrored the struggles for the men's program as well: a large country, disorganization and disparate youth clubs and development, and a lack of a collective understanding of what the national team would like to do if a player reaches the senior player pool.
It was clear that this was a subject Brandi had spoken about before. I could hear the mechanical tone that comes from repeating the same response again and again (and isn't the current status of youth soccer development in America the same year in and year out?), so I moved the subject to the WPS.
I asked her to "sell" women's soccer to an American fan that has his or her choice of the best leagues, the best players, at any time. Why watch women play when a fan can watch Messi, Rooney or Ronaldo?
In an attempt not to be offensive, I pointed out that the MLS faced the same challenge. They also needed fans to tune in if they were to expand.
Her immediate answer was "Soccer is soccer. There's value in each game."
As a former player and lover of the game, I understood this as well. I've tuned into a woman's game and marveled at a 40-yard shot I'd have trouble making knuckle, or the controlled passing and skill out of the midfield...but I recognized this view as the view of an insider, a passionate, obsessive supporter of the game.
Do all fans view it this way? I don't know.
While her response might be a great slogan for the WPS (where soccer is soccer), is it enough to keep women's professional soccer functioning in the United States?
Perhaps realizing this, Brandi tempered her answer with advice to any young woman that wants to make it in the U.S.
She pointed out that it's important to assess how the present game is being played, that more is gained from attending a game, and sitting and watching a collegiate, WPS, or U.S. match, and going home and copying, practicing, and dissecting what one witnessed.
This I understood, and it was a great endorsement for witnessing games live.
With my 15 minutes almost up, I quickly turned my attention to soccer as a whole in America. I asked her what she would want the American style of soccer to be if she were in charge. She had a very cerebral answer.
Brandi would love for American soccer to be remembered for "tactical awareness."
She prefaced this with "technical ability being equal," and I believe this comment came from the women's game where the American women are on about equal, if not equal footing with any international team when it comes to technical ability. The men may not be quite ready to equal the skill of an Argentina, Brazil, Germany or Spain.
Still, she hoped that American teams might be able to take the "scenarios, verbal cues," and adapt to the ebb and flow of the game.
She elaborated, saying if a team is playing overly physical, that the players would be able to recognize the situation and move the ball quickly or play around the more physical players.
Finally, I asked which analysts, writers, or soccer icons fans should be paying attention to when they spoke about soccer, and she mentioned Julie Foudy, Eric Wynalda and Christopher Sullivan, because they all were players with inside views on the game.
However, she stressed that no one should listen too closely to someone else's views, rather, fans should form their own opinion, as the game would only evolve with differing perspectives, especially in a melting pot like the U.S.
With the fear of a higher authority (a public relations officer or a voice from whatever live network was interviewing Brandi next), cutting into the line and ending the interview on awkward terms, I thanked Brandi for her time, and when finished, I looked back at the interview and was surprised how much was covered in that short amount of time (a very short amount of time considering how candid Brandi can be).
Hopefully, during the Women's World Cup this summer, more of Brandi Chastain's input and observations will be available for soccer fans, male and female.
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