Tony DiCicco getting his red coat at his National Soccer Hall of Fame induction in 2012. (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)
By Michael Lewis
Here I was on the Long Island Railroad, heading into New York City for the MLS Rivalry Week media day when the news on Twitter hit me like a ton of bricks.
Tony DiCicco had passed away.
Like a good professional, I started to write a quick obituary because it was important to tell the rest of the world about the passing of this great man.
As I was writing, I noticed that a tear began to form in the corner of my left eye. I was hoping it was an allergy, but I knew better.
Yes, even supposedly hardened, veteran journalists can cry for the passing of a great man.
I had the pleasure of knowing Tony for years, almost three decades. I convinced him to buy an ad for Soccer Week’s camp issue, a weekly New York soccer publication before anyone knew what the Internet was all about. Years later, he wrote a goalkeeping column for a national magazine that I edited in the 1990’s, Soccer Magazine. Whenever I needed some words of wisdom dealing with the national team, Tony was one of those go-to persons I went to.
The younger generation might better know Tony as an ESPN commentator, but Mr. DiCicco forged his reputation directing one of the greatest women’s soccer teams of all time. He helped make it great.
He took over the reins of the U.S. national side from Anson Dorrance in 1994 after serving as the team prepared to defend its 1991 Women’s World Cup title in Sweden (Tony was its goalkeeping coach at China ’91).
It didn’t exactly work out all that well.
That tournament had a Twilight Zone quality. Michelle Akers, the team’s No. 1 weapon, was injured 18 minutes into a 3-3 draw with China and never was the same. Goalkeeper Briana Scurry was red-carded in the stoppage time of the second game, a 2-0 victory over Denmark. Because DiCicco had made his three substitutions prior to the ejection, Mia Hamm, the greatest women’s attacking player in the world, was forced playing in the net for the remainder of the match, wearing Scurry’s uniform and gloves.
The U.S. lost to then archrival Norway in the semifinals, a crushing 1-0 defeat to the squad it had beaten in China four years prior. The Americans won the third-place match, but that wasn’t good enough for them for Tony.
A year later at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, the USA had a chance to redeem itself at the first Olympic women’s soccer tournament. In the semifinals, the Americans got redemption, defeating the hated Norwegians on Shannon MacMillan’s extratime goal. A few days later, the Red, White and Blue wore gold as Tiffeny Milbrett tallied the winning goal in a 2-1 win over China.
At Soccer Magazine, we named Tony our man of the year for 1996 for the accomplishment. I even learned something knew from him during an interview for a story. I asked him what he did with his gold medal. Tony replied that coaches did not receive gold medals, only athletes do. Of course, how would an American soccer writer know that because no USA soccer team had mined Olympic gold until that tournament. You learn something new every day.
Three years later, the pressure was on the U.S. team at 1999 Women’s World Cup. Hey, the Americans were hosts and there were great expectations because the tournament was being playing in big stadiums. Some observers felt it was a gamble. Not only did the Americans best the opposition, it made history as well with record-breaking attendances, including glass-ceiling shattering 90,185 at the final at the Rose Bowl as the event sky-rocketed women’s athletics into a new orbit and respect.
After the USA survived a 3-2 quarterfinal thriller with Germany, Tony decided to stay at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium for the semifinals. Instead of sitting in a special box or the stands, he went up to the press box to watch the second game of the doubleheader between Brazil and Nigeria. In one of the most amazing and confounding matches in women’s soccer history, the Brazilian out to a 3-0 advantage before the Nigerians equalized at 3-3 before the fabulous Sissi tallied in extratime for a 4-3 triumph.
Meanwhile, Tony held court with some of the American media, explaining what was transpiring on the field. A national coach in the press box talking to the media, mostly off-the-record. Now, you don’t see that every day, do we?
During that amazing run, Tony always gave credit to his team and took none or very little.
Unfortunately, after the 1999 world championship, Tony had to step down as coach.
He had to make a difficult decision because he wanted to see his sons grow up. Coaching the U.S. national team back then was a grueling job, with the team going on many tours to get games and experience.
What makes a successful coach?
Some are great with the X’s and the O’s.
Some are master psychologists dealing with players.
Some know how to rise to the occasion.
And others are great with the media.
Only a handful of gifted men and women are infused with all four qualities.
Tony DiCicco was fortunate to be one of them.
To make the challenge even greater, remember, he was a man coaching a women’s team. No easy task.
Somehow, whether it was his coaching experience or gut feeling, Tony got his message through to his team.
With Dorrance, he helped set the table and high standards that propelled the U.S. women’s national team to international prominence. That bar is as high if not higher today.
That’s why he will be remembered as one of the USA’s greatest soccer coaches and a mensch as well.