By Jeff Kassouf
Heather Mitts has torn her left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and will miss the FIFA Women’s World Cup in September. No, you are not dreaming, and it is not 2003. The United States’ starting right back will miss her second straight World Cup, and will be sidelined for at least 6-8 months.
For Mitts, it is potentially the most devastating thing possible for her playing career. The World Cup is the most coveted tournament in both the men’s and women’s games and with it only coming around every four years, the 28 year old may never step on the pitch for a World Cup game. It might be a bit early to push the panic button, but nobody knows what the next four years will bring. By the next tournament in 2011, she will be 32 and competing with many younger women for a roster spot.
However, Mitts is optimistic about the situation. On her official Myspace page, she released a statement with her intent to overcome the injury and grow stronger.
“Its pretty devastating but what can you do?” she said. “Crying and feeling sorry aren’t going to do anything but set me back so, I am just looking forward to getting back out there and to be stronger, faster and better than before.”
Every fan of not only U.S. Women’s Soccer, but women’s soccer in general should hope that she does exactly this. Before her injury, she had become a vital part of the team as the starting right back.
In fact, her injury in the 25th minute of the USA’s 6-2 win over Canada on May 12th came after she had already contributed to the first half goal fest between the teams. Mitts got forward in the 13th minute to provide the beautiful service from the right flank for Lindsay Tarpley’s goal and put the U.S. up 2-1.
Mitts went through a similar problem leading up to the 2003 Women’s World Cup when she broke her tibia, and will use the experience as motivation given her great success after that injury.
The United States and all of their fans certainly hope that she can help bring home a gold medal in Beijing as well, but will look to resurrect their poor 2003 World Cup performance. The U.S. Women finished in third place after a semifinal thrashing by eventual champions Germany, and will have something to prove this September.
Naturally, Mitts will be missed, but the lack of established outside backs in the player pool is a concern for some. Kate Markgraf has established herself over the years, but pairs better with Cat Whitehill at center back.
Stephanie Lopez has raw talent, but is young and inexperienced on the world stage. Christie Rampone is and experienced option, but then what? Does Greg Ryan play a 3-5-2 knowing he has three solid defenders, or does he risk it with an inexperienced outside back in a 4-4-2?
My answer actually is, yes – risk it. The United States National Team has a proven system that has produced high quality athletes since it’s beginnings in the 1980’s. Sure, there is no Mia Hamm or Julie Foudy this time around, but the system works and that is why the team is number one in the world right now. So go ahead Ryan, put in Stephanie Lopez or Amy LePeilbet and let’s see what they are made of.
The biggest concern for Heather is not who will replace her, but her individual health and her future with the women’s professional league slated to kick off in 2008. With the “Golden Girls” of the original league gone, this new (and yet to be named) women’s league will be searching for stars to emerge and be the faces of the league.
Without a doubt, Heather Mitts is one of those poster athletes. Forget her pretty face – she is one of the best players in this country; period. She is a role model for young girls and she also has an endorsement deal with Under Armour, which could prove as a vital link to advertising the league to the casual sports fan.
The revived WUSA still has Abby Wambach, Cat Whitehill, and others that can be marketed to fans, but none have the star power of Heather Mitts. Through her endorsement deals, people outside of soccer can at least associate to her face.
So, it is essential for both Mitts and the success of women’s soccer that she makes a speedy recovery. The league needs to get Mitts in the big markets of Los Angeles or New York and market her and the team appropriately.
The United States Women’s National Team does not need to panic – Mitts isn’t even panicking. Her biggest concern is getting herself healthy for the 2008 Olympics and the second go around at the WUSA. The league will be hoping for a fast and effective recovery as well. It can’t afford to begin its second endeavor at making women’s soccer a success with one of its best and most marketable players on the sidelines.
Jeff Kassouf is a staff writer for The New Paltz Times and a freelance writer who covers soccer, and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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