Ellertson Clearly Sees Both Sides

"This game is going to be just a huge moment for my mom, just being able to . . . look at her daughter out there playing against her country," Tina Ellertson, right, said of playing Nigeria. (By Julie Jacobson -- Associated Press)
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 18, 2007

SHANGHAI, Sept. 17 -- When Tina Ellertson glances up at the U.S. cheering section before Tuesday night's Women's World Cup match at Shanghai Hongkou Football Stadium, she will not have trouble spotting her parents. Amid a swirl of American flags, Eka and Joe Frimpong will also be flying the colors of the U.S. team's opponent, Nigeria.

Ellertson's mother grew up in the southern Nigerian city of Calabar and met her husband, a native of Ghana, while they were students at Southern Oregon University.

"I know that this game is going to be just a huge moment for my mom, just being able to sit back and look at her daughter out there playing against her country, a country that is her roots," Ellertson said Monday, a few hours before her parents were scheduled to arrive from the United States.

On Saturday, during a flight shared by the U.S. and Nigerian teams from Chengdu to Shanghai, she met some of her opponents. "I got to talk to them a little bit, tell them where my mom is from, and they are like, 'Whoa!' " said Ellertson, 25, a reserve defender who has been with the U.S. team for about two years. "It really does mean something to me."

Ellertson became emotional when she recounted what her grandmother said before she passed away four years ago: "She was telling my mom that she could picture me here playing for the USA. She didn't say Nigeria; she said USA."

Before Ellertson emerged on the U.S. national team scene, her African roots attracted interest not from the Nigerians, but from the Ghanaian soccer federation, which wanted her and her sister, Crystal, a University of Florida standout, to play for the national team in the 2003 World Cup. Both declined because of college commitments.

Ellertson was turned on to soccer by her father, who played a bit in Ghana and coached his daughters when they were growing up in Vancouver, Wash. "He's always critiquing a game, always in my ear after games talking to me about why did they do this, I think they should have done this," she said. "He just loves the game."

Her parents and sister will be in the stands Tuesday with another member of the family: Ellertson's 6-year-old daughter, MacKenzie.

Ellertson was 18 and preparing to play at NCAA power Santa Clara when she learned she was pregnant. Deciding it would be best to be close to home, she withdrew from school and prepared to raise a child with MacKenzie's father, Brad, her high school boyfriend whom she married last winter. She attended junior college during pregnancy before walking on to the University of Washington team, juggling school, soccer and an infant while living in family housing.

For the Huskies, she played forward and scored 43 goals in becoming a two-time Pacific-10 player of the year. But when Ellertson labored to earn playing time with the national team, Coach Greg Ryan figured her speed and strength could be best utilized on the back line. She has yet to play in the World Cup, but could become a second-half option in tight matches.

Shifting from the front line to the back line is "a different mentality. It's been a slow transition, but it's been a good one," said Ellertson, who has made 25 national team appearances, including three starts this year. "I feel I am getting better and better each day. I love playing back there. I know it's awesome to score goals, but to make big plays, stop forwards from putting it in the back of the net, it's a great feeling."

U.S. Notes: The two quarterfinal berths from Group B are at stake Tuesday when the Americans (1-0-1) meet Nigeria (0-1-1) and North Korea (1-0-1) plays Sweden (0-1-1) in Tianjin.

The United States and North Korea are even on all major tiebreakers and, if both win or both tie, the seedings could be determined by FIFA's fair play system, which awards teams for a stellar disciplinary record.

The first-place finisher will play England on Saturday in Tianjin, while the runner-up will take on defending champion Germany the same night in Wuhan.

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