To her teammates on the U.S. women's national soccer team, forward Tiffeny Milbrett's personality precisely mirrors her game, which is to say no one knows where she is going either with her train of thought or the ball. On the field, Milbrett expresses herself through a delightfully dizzying style, characterized by an uncanny ability to wiggle out of tight places and put the ball into the goal.
She has scored more goals than anyone on the U.S. team -- including her offensive sidekick Mia Hamm -- during the five-month lead-up to the Women's World Cup, the 16-team world championship tournament that begins Saturday with the United States's first-round opener against Denmark at Giants Stadium. Since January, Milbrett has scored 12 goals, including four in one game against Japan. Hamm has eight.
"She's so creative," said Cindy Parlow, one of the U.S. team's three starting forwards. "She does things out there I wouldn't even think of doing. That I wouldn't even think of trying. No defender can read her. I can't read her."
The best tactic against Milbrett? Guessing? Closing your eyes? "She's unbelievable when she has the ball at her feet, running at you," U.S. defender Carla Overbeck said. "As a defender, you're scared to death. She is playing the best I have ever seen her play."
Milbrett's teammates and U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco say she could be the hottest story of the tournament, perhaps as quickly as Saturday, when a sellout crowd of more than 77,000 is likely to be at Giants Stadium -- one of eight venues for the 32-game tournament, which will come to Jack Kent Cooke Stadium on Wednesday, on June 27 and July 1. (As of today, fewer than 2,000 tickets remained for Saturday's game.) DiCicco called Milbrett "the epitome of loving the game of soccer," saying she exudes a "joy on the field."
Milbrett has been involved with the national team since 1991, and she scored the deciding goal against China in the gold-medal game of the 1996 Olympics. In the past four years, she and Hamm have become an incredible offensive tandem. They have combined for 102 goals (47 by Milbrett) and 91 assists (36 by Milbrett) in 85 games since 1995.
But while Hamm has a new book on store shelves, a co-starring role in a Gatorade commercial with Michael Jordan, a building named after her at Nike's headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., and, on this day, a large ring of television cameras and reporters surrounding her, Milbrett goes about her business largely unrecognized.
Milbrett, though, has gotten her teammates' -- and opponents' -- attention. At the end of the U.S. team's 5-0 win over the Netherlands in Milwaukee a few weeks ago, Hamm and midfielder Julie Foudy cheered Milbrett, who had scored once and made a beautiful assist, from the sideline.
"Millieeee!!" they shouted. "You make them look silliieee!"
Milbrett, though, hasn't always felt so warmly welcomed.
As a freshman at the University of Portland in 1991, she was invited to join the national team for a pre-World Cup tournament in China, the site of the inaugural women's World Cup later that year. But because Milbrett was a late replacement for injured U.S. player April Heinrichs, she wasn't cleared to enter China immediately. Milbrett remained behind, staying for two days in San Francisco and one in Tokyo.
She traveled by herself to Beijing and finally arrived as her teammates were assembling in a hotel lobby for the bus ride to a game. Most of them had no idea who she was. She did not feel comfortable saying much of anything, let alone launching into one of her now-characteristic monologues, which inevitably includes a handful of detours and digressions.
"It was really difficult, and it didn't have anything to do with soccer," said Milbrett, who was 18 at the time. "If you're around people you don't know very well -- I'm shy -- and it's hard to express yourself and be yourself. I'm 100 percent me, now."
Milbrett played just 20 games with the U.S. national team from 1991 through 1994. Then came a breakthrough year, although Milbrett cringes as she recalls the experience. She started 10 of 21 games in 1995. She had a substantial role during the second Women's World Cup, which took place that year in Sweden. The favored U.S. team was upset in the semifinals by Norway and finished a disappointing third.
Because of injuries to Michelle Akers, Milbrett played far more than she expected. She tied teammates Tisha Venturini and Kristine Lilly for the team lead in goals during the tournament with three. But as Milbrett remembers it, she had no clear idea of what she was doing, on the field or off. She felt awkward around her more veteran teammates, many of whom had developed close friendships through their years together on the national team or from playing at North Carolina -- the alma mater of eight U.S. players.
"It seems like it's been 20 years considering the amount of growing I feel I have done from 1995 until now," Milbrett said. "Specifically, during '95, looking back on it, I felt so young, so inexperienced, just a complete rookie."
However, from the beginning of her soccer career as a youth in Portland, Ore., she always displayed a knack for scoring. Her small stature -- she is 5 feet 2 -- and thick legs gave her the explosiveness and agility to scoot around defenders. She scored 103 goals in college, tying Hamm -- a North Carolina graduate -- for the NCAA Division I career record. (Their mark stood until 1998, when Danielle Fotopoulos, another U.S. team player broke it by scoring 118 goals for Florida.)
"I loved soccer," said Milbrett, whose affinity for the game took her to Japan for three seasons as a pro player from 1995 to '97. "It came the most natural. I just got stuff done, and I didn't know how I did it."
Her teammates still aren't quite sure how she does it, but they would be happy to see Milbrett's run of success continue, all the way to the final July 10 at the Rose Bowl.
"Tiffeny Milbrett," Hamm said recently, "right now I can't say enough about her. We all end up standing and watching her and saying: `Wow.' "
CAPTION: Since January, Tiffeny Milbrett has scored 12 goals for U.S., including four in one game against Japan.