The last time Julie Murray played soccer in the Washington area, the settings were leafy parks around Northern Virginia. Many of her teammates were boys and girls from her Chesterbrook Woods neighborhood of McLean, and postgame parties took place at nearby Tysons Corner.
She was just another kid enjoying youth soccer in the suburbs.
"I have some wonderful memories of those days," Murray said recently. "I guess in a way, I've come home."
Almost 17 years later, Murray is about to step back onto a soccer field here, but this time the site will be Jack Kent Cooke Stadium and the backdrop the 1999 Women's World Cup. Murray, 29, is the team captain and top scoring threat for Australia (0-0-1), which plays Sweden (0-1) at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday in a crucial Group D match following the Norway-Canada game at 6.
After tying Ghana, 1-1, in their opening first-round game Sunday in Foxboro, Mass., the Australians need to win Wednesday. A victory would virtually assure them a quarterfinal berth -- something they failed to achieve after going 0-3 in the 1995 Women's World Cup.
It also would be the ideal way for Murray, who scored Sunday, to celebrate her return to the area.
Murray's father worked at the Australian Embassy in Washington from 1979 to 1982, and the family lived in McLean. Julie attended Chesterbrook Elementary School, where she began her soccer career playing for the Red Rockets intramural team. She later joined a McLean select boys squad and a McLean select girls team.
"I loved living in the USA," she said. "I had some great friends at school and in soccer. It was a lot of fun."
What began as a weekend activity in the United States became an everyday pursuit on the other side of the world. Murray made her Australian national team debut when she was 17, and with the exception of a two-year hiatus when she was dropped from the roster following the 1995 Women's World Cup, she has been a regular ever since.
She has made 62 national-team appearances -- second behind current teammate Anissa Tann-Darby -- and has scored 17 goals for the team, which is eager to join the world's elite in time for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. Women's soccer has grown dramatically in Australia, soaring from 4,711 registered players in 1984 to more than 65,000 this year.
In preparation for the Women's World Cup, the national team players have been in an intensive residency program at the Australian Institute for Sport in Canberra for the past year.
"We're confident we can get through to the quarterfinals," said Coach Greg Brown, a native of Manchester, England, who played professionally in Australia and, after becoming a citizen, played for the Australian men's national team. "Once we're there, we'll give it our best."
Murray is the key to the success of the Matildas, the women's team's long-standing nickname (the men's team is known as the Socceroos). At age 15, she was invited to join the national team for the 1985 Oceania Cup in New Zealand and played in a B team game. In her first A team match 21 months later, she scored against Taiwan.
Australia made the quarterfinals of an international tournament in China in 1988, which served as a dress rehearsal for the first Women's World Cup three years later. The Australians lost their region's 1991 Women's World Cup berth to New Zealand on goal differential.
Four years later, Murray, a central midfielder at the time, scored the lone goal in a 1-0 victory over New Zealand that helped Australia secure a spot in the 1995 Women's World Cup in Sweden. There, the Matildas finished last in the 12-team field after being outscored 13-3 in losses to Denmark, China and the United States.
Murray started all three games in Sweden, then was left off the team for the next two years. But when Brown was hired in 1997, Murray returned -- and Brown decided to convert her into a forward.
"She didn't have the work rate to play in midfield at the time, so we decided to take the workload off her," Brown said. "She enjoyed it, and she kept scoring. There was no reason to switch her back. She is so cool in front of the goal."
The move paid off almost right away as Murray scored in a 1-0 upset of Sweden in August 1997. At the time, that was Australia's most impressive victory in its nearly 25-year history. But other major victories have followed, including one over China.
Murray, meanwhile, has maintained her scoring touch, and in February was named to the FIFA All-Stars for an exhibition against the United States in San Jose.
"For a long time, I wasn't selfish enough on the field," Murray said. "I'd have a scoring opportunity, but I would always look to set someone up. Now I want to score."
While playing for New South Wales in the Australian amateur league, she scored all of her team's goals in a 3-2 victory over South Australia for the national championship. When not playing soccer, she is a consultant for an event management company in Sydney.
But soccer was not her only athletic passion growing up. She was a shortstop and center fielder for the national softball team before scheduling conflicts forced her to choose one sport. It wasn't a difficult decision.
"I never get bored with soccer," Murray said. "It's so highly technical and enjoyable every time I play. There's nothing like playing in front of a big crowd and scoring a goal. The World Cup is a great opportunity for me and for the team."