Tiffeny Milbrett: “The culture has to play back toward letting soccer players develop vs. all these horror stories that you hear.” (FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)
By Michael Lewis
When she played at the highest level of the beautiful game, Tiffeny Milbrett walked and ran to the beat of a different drummer.
She wasn’t just an athlete who played soccer, she was a soccer player.
For Milbrett, who recently was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame, being a good athlete just doesn’t cut it anymore internationally. You have to be a soccer player, a damn good one.
“What is a bigger story in our younger age groups, the rest of the world is just catching up very quickly,” said Milbrett, who is the Colorado Rapids head girls coach. “The culture has to play back toward letting soccer players develop vs. all these horror stories that you hear, that your team or club happened to lose, literally those players and some of those families, you’re going to lose them to the next club that wins. Just because you’re winning, I don’t know why its such a hard concept to understand. Just because you’re winning it doesn’t mean you’re developing and doing things right for the game and the players to reach their soccer potential. We have to get away from a culture that values and judges if you’ve won and needs to be able to value and judge if you developed because the winning will come.”
The Portland, Ore. native knows a thing or two about soccer.
Despite her height — she likes to say that she is 5-2 and one quarter-inch — Milbrett was a scoring terror no matter what level she was at. She set goal-scoring records at the University of Portland. She was the first MVP and goal-scoring leader while performing for the New York Power in the Women’s United Soccer Association, the first incarnation of women’s professional in the U.S. And she was a 100-goal scorer for the U.S. women’s national team as a member of an Olympic gold-medal winning side (1996) and a world championship squad (1999). And as they say, that’s just scratching the surface of her career.
The 46-year-old Milbrett said the American sporting public is obsessed about winning.
“How many articles that you read coming out of everywhere else in the rest of the world and they’re essentially saying these things,” she said in a recent interview. “In our American culture we’re so obsessed with, if we won, then we’re doing everything right. No, that doesn’t necessarily mean that. We have to take warning of the rest of the world and the younger ages advancing so quickly because they’re doing the soccer thing. We need to do the soccer thing, too, not just train the athletes, right?”
For years, B.W. Gottschee of the Cosmopolitan Junior Soccer League has espoused the motto, “Be with the ball” and the winning would come eventually. It usually has, given the club’s success not over years, but decades.
More clubs and teams have followed that philosophy, but for Milbrett, it apparently is not enough. A soccer mentality and a soccer IQ are needed.
“We are playing a sport where you need certain skill sets with many different things,” Milbrett said. “You just can’t be able to run and be powerful with strength. You have to have to be able to make decisions. You have to able to be aware of the game off the ball. You have to be able to do something with the ball. We cannot continue to train track stars, we have to train soccer players to what the sport demands.
“I don’t see that happening a lot because in our culture it’s all about the winning element and again, … and we’re starting at 8-, 9- and 10-years-old, the winning element that is demanded by parents and facilitated by clubs or otherwise they’re going to lose players. So, of course, you take the biggest, fastest, strongest from a very early age. It’s a very simple no wonder that its going down this path. Yes, there’s no question that you have to have physical demands, you have to be able to handle the physical and mental demands. If I see a young player who is a smaller player … they play small because they are afraid of the physicality and [are] mentally hesitant.
“You have to have a certain mental, emotional and physical application for the level of where you’re at, but if you’re a better soccer player and you compete matching those things, I’ll take a smaller player any day over just a fast forward, physically strong player because that’s a soccer player. There’s no reason why you can’t train both because you also need to able to know what the game demands and how to train that in. But that takes years of layering in that. I don’t know if we have the patience. I don’t understand our culture … We will continue to suffer internationally, and we are and are already for sure.”
As for the U.S.’s chances in the Women’s World Cup France next summer, Milbrett said that there will be a challenge and a half given the quality of opponents. Last month the Americans qualified for their eighth appearance at the world championships.
“As you get to the oldest level, anything can happen,” she said. “Obviously, we saw it with the men’s side. On paper, they were absolutely qualified through and should have been. But when you get to the highest level because of the adult game and bodies and capability, anything can happen. I obviously give the U.S. team an opportunity, for sure.
“Back in the heyday, I played in three World Cups and we only won one. It’s nothing against the current crop. It’s the nature of the competition and nature of the beast. But of course, probably the U.S. is always one of the top contenders. A lot of people would bet on the U.S. … That to me hasn’t changed.”