Come on. Really. The U.S. Women's World Cup team members can't possibly be such good friends. No team with only one bona fide superstar, Mia Hamm, and 19 other talented players, could avoid at least occasional jealousies and hard feelings. Right?
It defies logic to believe the Americans are as close as depicted in those corny commercials, in which players accompany one teammate on a date and offer to get dental fillings in support of another.
Except that, the players say, the ads are no exaggeration.
It may cause heads to shake and eyes to roll, but the players, repeatedly and earnestly, say things like this:
"We're all a big group of sisters" [Shannon MacMillan] and "best friends" [Joy Fawcett] "who carry each other through tough times" [Mia Hamm] because "we care about each other" [Kristine Lilly] "like a family" [Briana Scurry] built on "unity, trust and love" [Julie Foudy].
Explained Foudy: "We do all genuinely love each other. It's such a great feeling to know you have 19 other people really, truly pulling for you."
Oozing more sentiment than a Hallmark card, this team somehow musters the nastiest and most feared sort of grit and intensity on the soccer field. The United States meets Brazil Sunday in a semifinal at Stanford Stadium. On the line: A trip to next Saturday's final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
The U.S. team is seeking a return to the championship, which it won in the inaugural Cup in 1991, after having lost to Norway in semifinals of the 1995 Women's World Cup. Brazil, the rising star in women's soccer, lost in the semifinals of the 1996 Olympics to China.
If you take the Americans' word for it, their closeness off the field has as much to do with their advancement as anything they have done with a soccer ball. It is their unified spirit, they say, that contributes to their forceful and relentless on-field demeanor. They unite -- from Hamm to the last player on the bench -- like soldiers, in a fierce battle against the competition. In their locker room, they are the Brady Bunch. On the field, they are Attila the Hun and his army.
"It's amazing," Brandi Chastain said. "It's incredible how people fall into place. It's like all the pieces have come together and everyone is happy with whatever piece they have. . . . This team is not about getting publicity or getting kudos. We're all out there playing for each other."
Part of the Americans' bond is natural; six players are competing in their third Women's World Cup and six are participating in their second. Hamm, Foudy, Lilly, Fawcett, Carla Overbeck and Michelle Akers have played together for more than a decade. They met as high schoolers or young collegians. They have literally grown up together. They used to do homework on the team planes and giggle like college girls. Over the years, their lives have become more complicated. They have supported each other through marriages, pregnancies, divorces and deaths in families.
Before taking the field for their 3-2 quarterfinal victory over Germany at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium on Thursday, the U.S. team starters circled the large locker room to warm up. As they ran, the reserves stood in front of the lockers, giving them high fives. During games, the U.S. bench has been wildly animated, celebrating every U.S. goal as if each reserve scored it herself.
After Thursday's match, Hamm stood up before the team and thanked the players on the bench. She said their pats on the back and shouts of encouragement provided the starters with an enormous lift after Germany's demoralizing second goal, which gave the Germans a 2-1 lead just as the first half expired.
"It's sincere. It's genuine. It's heartfelt," U.S. team psychologist Colleen Hacker said. "They are each other's fans, genuinely. I see it on a daily basis."
The Americans' exceptional closeness starts with Hamm, the team's one true celebrity. Hamm is so wholeheartedly deferential to the team that she both sets a good example and diffuses potential jealousies before they surface. Reporters have grown accustomed to her team-first answers, in which she responds to personally directed questions by talking about how good her teammates are. Hamm astonished Nike advertising executives before the Women's World Cup when she steadfastly refused to do solo commercials. But her position led to the now-famous ads that include about a half dozen U.S. players.
"Our approach with Mia was: `Give us something to work with,'" said Sandi Bittler, Nike's director of women's sports marketing. "She just kept saying, `It's not all about me, and I feel stupid being here all by myself.' "
"I think that's one of the biggest draws of this team," Foudy said. "It's seen as a team. As Mia so eloquently puts it, she's out there with 19 other people."
Both U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco and the U.S. players give partial credit for their harmonious existence to good, old-fashioned hard work. They say their devotion to one another is not merely some magical happening. DiCicco believes that team chemistry must be practiced just as regularly as corner kicks.
"This is a team of wonderful women that don't identify themselves as soccer players," DiCicco said. "They are much bigger in life than they are as players. They are very close, and they have created bigger and bigger goals each time they come together."
Through Hacker and the rest of the coaching staff, the American players are constantly reminded to put the team ahead of their own personal interest. The Americans' mantra in 1996, when they won the first Olympic gold medal awarded in women's soccer, was "Team Before I."
"It's both working at it and being together," Akers said. "I kind of look at it like a marriage. A good one doesn't just happen. . . . A priority of this team is getting along, and having fun."
Having fun comes easily, with practical jokers such as Foudy, who once wrote a letter on official U.S. Soccer Federation letterhead informing Chastain that she did not have permission to miss a team function because of her wedding. (Chastain was furious until the prank was revealed.) When teammates babysat Overbeck's 1-year-old son Jackson during the five-month training camp in Orlando leading up to the World Cup, they painted his fingernails and toenails with nail polish and dressed him up in little girls' clothes.
To pass time, players occasionally videotape themselves doing goofy things and then watch the videos as a team. Before the tournament, Chastain and Hamm dressed up in hunting gear, talked in Australian accents, and produced a wacky skit.
During the team's World Cup training camp, players gathered at least once a week for dinner together at somebody's rental house or apartment. On the road, players made joint trips to malls, movies and Starbucks.
But their time together is not always all fun and games.
When former U.S. team member Debbie Keller filed a sexual harassment suit last year against former U.S. national team coach Anson Dorrance, it seemed likely the team would be affected. Dorrance, after all, coached, or still coaches, eight members of the U.S. team who attended the University of North Carolina. When Hamm was at North Carolina, Dorrance was her legal guardian and she remains extremely loyal to him. On the other hand, Lilly, also a North Carolina grad, is dating Keller's brother.
In January, Keller was not invited to camp by DiCicco, leading to speculation that she was excluded because of the suit. DiCicco denied that was the case, and his position was supported by an arbitration panel that reviewed a complaint filed by Keller. Lilly told the Chicago Tribune at the time that she thought Keller deserved to be there.
The situation was potentially explosive. But all indications are that it was never a distraction.
DiCicco explained his decision to exclude Keller to the U.S. players during a closed-door meeting in January. Team captains Overbeck and Foudy addressed the team after DiCicco. They urged players to keep their focus on the Women's World Cup and not to allow personal matters to interfere. Hacker has offered private counseling on the matter.
"Everybody understood the seriousness of it," Chastain said. "It wasn't a petty misunderstanding. . . . But we just had to put it aside. There were definitely people emotionally involved, but we had to put it aside."
That meeting, players say, was the very last time the matter was broached.
"It's not just the lawsuit -- everyone has stuff in life they have to handle. People have to deal with things all the time," Lilly said. "We've grown up together. We've done it through hard times, good times, bad times, everything."
SO HAPPY TOGETHER . . .
Twelve of the 20 players have been together for at least six years:
Years With Team
*Appearances with U.S. national team in a full international match
CAPTION: "It's genuine. It's hearfelt," psychologist Colleen Hacker said of the closeness of the U.S. team, here celebrating against Germany.
CAPTION: "It's such a great feeling to know you have 19 other people really, truly pulling for you," Julie Foudy said.
CAPTION: The first family helped U.S. team celebrate its thrilling win over Germany on Thursday at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium.