This story originally was posted on BigAppleSoccer.com Aug. 10, 2004
By Michael Lewis
HERAKLION, Greece — The start of the Olympics can’t come soon enough for Brooklyn, N.Y. native Maria Yatrakis. The former Big East goalkeeper of the year is expected to start for Greece against the U.S. in the very first event of the Summer Olympics on Wednesday.
“When I think of being next to the girls — the teammates that I have been playing with for 2 1/2 years, having the Greek anthem playing and to be on Greek soil with Greek fans, I just get chills thinking about it now,” she said. “It’s just going to be an indescribable feeling.”
Yatrakis, who was eligible to play for Greece because of her parents’ Greek ancestry — her father was born there, got a tip from her college coach at the University of Connecticut, Len Tsantiris (who is Greek). She tried out, made the team and 29 caps later, Yatrakis has found herself in the world spotlight.
“He pushed me and told me that I should go and tryout and take the opportunity,” she said recently.
“Since I got the opportunity, I feel so lucky to get the opportunity to participate in these games. When you can see all the stuff that goes into making this team . . . you have to be into it, mind, body and soul all the way.”
Playing the U.S. is a tall order for most national sides. The Greek women’s team is relatively inexperienced — the team needed to recruit eight American women with Greek heritage to bolster the quality of the team — while one player alone on the U.S. has a world’s record 276 international appearances — midfielder Kristine Lilly.
“They’re players like us, too,” Yatrakis said. “So, we have to not let our minds get ahead of us.
“I’m really not intimidated. I think they’re an amazing team. But I think we can definitely show ourselves and definitely play well. You never know. Soccer is a very strange game. Games can turn any moment.
“I would love it if we could tie against them. Maybe we would be able to sneak a goal in. being out there and competing. Whatever the result is, as long as we can compete, I will be proud of us.”
Yatrakis, 24, figured that she will be late reporting for her job as goalkeeper coach for Columbia University. The Lions are scheduled to start pre-season on Aug. 22.
“Kevin [McCarthy, the coach] has been absolutely so supportive of me in every way,” she said. “I’m really lucky to have the opportunity to coach there and to be able to participate in the Olympics with their full support.”
Yatrakis, who played a year under coach Joe Lee with the HBC Nasty Girls (Long Island Junior Soccer League), has performed with the New York Magic and Long Island Rough Riders of the W-League. Because she was playing with the Greek national side as much as possible — during spring and winter breaks and summer vacation — Yatrakis’s time with the Lady Riders was limited.
“She did excellent,” said Lady Riders general manager Kim Wyant, who played in goal in the U.S. Women’s National Team’s first international match in 1985. “We were disappointed she could not make more of a commitment to the team. We understood her commitment to the Greek National Team.
“She’s extremely athletic, very quick and agile for a goalkeeper. She’s very active in the goal. She plays off her line well and is very vocal with her teammates. That’s something you always value in a goalkeeper.
“I’m thrilled for her.”
Yatrakis started playing soccer as a seven-year-old (“my mom wanted me to run around”), played with a boys travel team, then eventually with a girls side at 16 — the Manhattan Redlegs (now the Manhattan Soccer Club). She did not play on an Olympic Development team.
“I found whatever team I could and ended up playing for them,” she said. “I didn’t have a traditional soccer development.”
Yatrakis played basketball, softball and baseball, but there was something special about soccer.
“What grabbed my attention about soccer was just the freedom you have as a player,” she said. “A coach can’t call a timeout. You have 45 minutes on the field with your team. It’s a sport when you are pretty much free to do whatever you need to do to win the game. I actually loved that. I loved the freedom of soccer. In basketball, you have to run certain plays, do certain things you have to be told by the coach. In soccer, you don’t have anything like that. You have to freedom to play and create. That’s what I love about soccer.”
Now, Yatrakis stops creative plays.
Like many keepers, her career in goal wasn’t one of her choosing, at least not in the beginning.
“I played on a boys team,” she said. “None of the boys wanted to be the goalie. Since I was the only girl, I got stuck in goal a lot. I really enjoyed it. It was a challenge for me, and it was something that I stuck with it and I was good at it.”
The U.S. and the rest of the world will see how good Yatrakis is on Wednesday.