One minute, Tony DiCicco sounds like the soccer coach that he is. Another, he sounds more like a history professor or perhaps a sociologist. As the United States prepared for Thursday's Women's World Cup match at Chicago's Soldier Field against an offense-oriented Nigerian team, DiCicco promised his team will continue to play an attacking style.
DiCicco uses a formation with three forwards, an aggressive tactic in a sport in which most teams more conservatively use two or one. The U.S. men's team unveiled a one-forward formation when it went to the 1998 World Cup in France, where it lost all three of its matches. Despite the uncommon approach, DiCicco doesn't claim to be a master strategist. To DiCicco, his team's style of play has been all but preordained.
"I think the game of soccer really reflects the culture of countries," DiCicco said. "This team, I think, is a microcosm of our culture."
This is where DiCicco, who has coached the U.S. team since late in 1994, takes a historical turn -- or perhaps a comical one, depending on one's viewpoint. Throughout U.S. history, DiCicco explains, the United States has been an active, forceful nation. American players, a product of their environment, are thus well-acquainted with an active, forceful style.
The way DiCicco sees it, the U.S. women's team, which won its first World Cup match Saturday against Denmark by a 3-0 score, naturally carries that style to the field. To DiCicco, a conservative approach would be next to impossible for American players to comprehend.
"We are viewed by the world and in many ways we are an aggressive country," DiCicco said. "When I've tried to hold this team back, it doesn't work. For sure, this team plays to win, and nothing else. They are Americans, a product of their society, and that's the way they go out there."
Said Denmark's Lene Terp last week: "The typical European team possesses the ball a lot and tries to keep it. The U.S. team, they want to attack all of the time."
Whether or not one agrees with DiCicco's explanation, there is no denying the U.S. team's approach. With 110 goals, U.S. forward Mia Hamm is the leading goal-scorer in international history, and teammate Michelle Akers is just eight goals behind. Even against Nigeria, which pledges to send a flurry of offensive forces at U.S. defenders, the United States will not hold back. What it will strive to do, DiCicco said, to combat Nigeria's speed and aggressiveness, is maintain control of its attack, making possession a priority.
Despite DiCicco's approach to offense, players say he has emphasized defense more than his predecessor on the national team, the legendary Anson Dorrance of the University of North Carolina. Under Dorrance, the U.S. team used a three-defender, four-midfielder, three-forward alignment that resulted in a "3-4-3 and fly" philosophy, according to U.S. midfielder Julie Foudy.
"We used to be a team that loved to attack and fly people forward," Foudy said. "Sending numbers forward is great, but we would be one or two down on counterattacks. . . . [DiCicco] has done a good job of combining aggressiveness with sensibility."
In DiCicco's four-defender alignment, the two positioned on the wings -- usually Brandi Chastain and Joy Fawcett -- have some leeway. They may go forward at certain times and become attackers. The two central defenders, usually Kate Sobrero and Carla Overbeck, are assigned to stay home, protecting against counterattacks. In Thursday's match, the U.S. team likely will be without Sobrero, who sprained her ankle during today's morning training session. In her stead, DiCicco likely will start either Sara Whalen or Christie Pearce, speedy players DiCicco was considering playing anyway.
Or he might revert to a different formation with three defenders and four midfielders, and in that case use Shannon MacMillan as the extra midfielder. Sobrero's injury, combined with Nigeria's relentless style, makes the U.S. players uncomfortable, but only to an extent.
"They're long on the athletic part, but not so long on the skill part," U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry said about the Nigerians, who defeated North Korea 2-1 in their Women's World Cup opener.
"They attack and we attack," DiCicco said. "It should be an exciting game to watch."
CAPTION: Andrea Hill, left, tries to get the attention of all-time international scoring leader Mia Hamm, right, as Hamm signs autographs after the U.S. team's practice.