How Mia Hamm ended up playing as goalkeeper at a World Cup: ‘Somebody dialed up the wack’

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Mia Hamm calls it “the longest 11 minutes of my life.”

Was she referring to the penalty shootout in the 1999 Women’s World Cup final that saw the U.S. ultimately prevail over China? Nope. How about closing out the 2004 Olympic gold-medal match against Brazil? Uh-uh. Rather, it was the 11 minutes — give or take — she played as a goalkeeper against Denmark at the 1995 Women’s World Cup.

Imagine Wayne Gretzky donning a mask and pads in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Or women’s hockey legends Hayley Wickenheiser or Cammi Granato doing the same in the Winter Olympics. Or how about Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo putting on a keeper jersey and gloves at the men’s World Cup? No chance. In 1995, Hamm wasn’t the household name she would become four years later at the 1999 World Cup, but she did have a World Cup winner’s medal and the first of four consecutive U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year awards to her name already. She was well on her way to becoming the most recognizable female player in the world.

It makes her stint in goal completely incongruous, and yes, it took an otherworldly set of circumstances for Hamm to log time between the sticks, namely a controversial red card to starting goalkeeper Briana Scurry, along with manager Tony DiCicco having used all of his available substitutes.

And after the U.S. had secured a 2-0 win, Hamm’s overriding emotion was relief as reserve keeper Saskia Webber joined her on the field for an impromptu postgame celebration.

“We were both just laughing,” Hamm recalled. “Saskia said, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m glad you made it through.’ I was like, ‘Me too. Here are your gloves back. I don’t ever want to touch them again.'”

Plan or no plan? Why did Mia Hamm end up in goal?

There is a smidgen of debate over just how it was that Hamm ended up in net, and how much planning it involved. Following DiCicco’s death in 2017, his son Anthony, who shared tidbits from his father’s archive, relayed on Twitter how the staff “didn’t have a plan for this scenario.” But in talking to Scurry as well as assistant coaches April Heinrichs and Lauren Gregg, one can almost see the squinting of the eyes and the shaking of the head over the phone line.

“Oh, 100 percent we had a plan,” Gregg told ESPN.

These are the scenarios that coaching staffs around the world sit up late at night thinking about. In the case of the USWNT at the 1995 World Cup, the planning was meticulous. What if the team has Michelle Akers or doesn’t have Michelle Akers? What if it’s down two goals with five minutes left? And yes, what if it needs an emergency goalkeeper?

“You can’t be unprepared for anything, including who would go in goal if we would need to for whatever reason; two goalkeepers are hurt, one goes down,” Gregg said.

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DiCicco’s background as a goalkeeper in his playing days, as well being the goalkeeper coach in his earliest coaching stints with the U.S. program, gave him a keen eye as to who would do well and hinted strongly that he wouldn’t leave something like that to chance.

“We had a tryout, so to speak, where we had three players come to training and Tony trained them and played balls from the flank,” Heinrichs said. “The shots are pretty easy to deal with if you’re a good athlete. It’s when the cross comes in that, man, if you just don’t do that often, that’s tough. And Mia was clearly one of the best at reading the flight of the ball from the flank.”

Good thing, because as Gregg put it: “There weren’t many volunteers, let’s put it that way.”

On any team, there’s always a healthy amount of banter between goalkeepers and field players, especially when it comes to maintaining fitness. The requirements are completely different, with field players engaged in more aerobic exercises while keepers are at the other end of the spectrum, all quick movements and sprinting. The field players, in desperate search of a third lung, will look longingly at the (so it seems) easier exercises that the goalkeepers are doing.

Scurry recalls there being a healthy respect between the keepers and field players.

“They understood the gravity of the position,” she said, though there was smack talk too. And who engaged in the most banter?

“Julie Foudy,” Scurry said. “Shocking, right?”

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Hamm might not have been engaging in Foudy levels of smack talk, but at one stage she was certainly of the opinion that what the field players were doing was more demanding. So one day DiCicco called some of the players’ bluffs — including Hamm’s — and invited them to do some pressure training. It was, shall we say, an education.

“It was a lot of down on the ground, jump up, run forward, touch, run back, touch the bar, then sprint forward, and we did it one training session,” Hamm told ESPN. “I think all the field players were like, ‘Yeah, we’re good. We’ll go back to doing our fitness.’ This getting on the ground, getting back up is not very fun.”

There was one drill, which Hamm called “chip and head,” in which she was often paired up with Tisha Venturini. It involved a keeper chipping the ball to her teammate, who would try to score with her head. This resulted in the field players getting some spells in goal. In Hamm’s view, this was her undoing in a manner of speaking.

“The two of us would get overly kind of excited to be the person in goal,” Hamm said about Venturini and herself. “We would borrow Saskia’s gloves and kind of dive around and think we were goalkeepers, but we actually weren’t goalkeepers. So the first thing I probably would go back and tell myself is just tone it down a bit because then hopefully he doesn’t see you in practice and then go, ‘Oh, you’d be a good fit.'”

As it turned out, Hamm was a good fit to be the emergency goalkeeper for a number of reasons. She was incredibly athletic, having played any number of ball sports with her brothers growing up, including American football. She was also good with her feet (obviously) and adept at reading the game, which is what the coaching staff prized the most as opposed to pure shot-stopping. She was also the kind of team-first player who wouldn’t object to being thrown in goal if that was what the situation required. Furthermore, she was likely to be on the field late in the game if something wild went down.

“I remember more that we had a good sense of who we thought would do a great job doing it, even though [Hamm] was, at 5-foot-4, one of our smaller players,” Gregg said.

And so, the coaching staff and team were prepared for the scenario.

“We always had the backup field player goalkeeper, just in case something wack happened,” Scurry said. “And somebody dialed up the wack and it happened.”

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A bizarre situation: ‘I was astonished’

The U.S. opened the tournament with a 3-3 draw against China, which on paper wasn’t awful except for the fact that the Americans coughed up 3-1 lead in the last 16 minutes. That put a bit more pressure on the U.S. to get a result against Denmark than there might have been otherwise. But the Americans responded and, thanks to goals from Kristine Lilly and Tiffeny Milbrett, they were up 2-0 and looking comfortable.

Maybe a little too comfortable as it turned out. In the 85th minute, DiCicco used his last sub, a move that backfired to a degree three minutes later, when the match turned into an excursion into bizarro world. Scurry punted the ball upfield, and referee Engage Camara — fulfilling his role as the Minister of Wack — blew his whistle because Scurry, in his view, had handled the ball outside the box as she attempted to punt. Never mind that this infraction is hardly ever called. What made the decision even weirder was that he then issued Scurry a straight red card. It was an infraction that didn’t come close to the level of serious foul play.

Scurry wondered if Camara had gotten her mixed up with Danish goalkeeper Dorthe Larsen, who had been booked in the first half. But that made no sense either because Scurry was given a straight red. As it turned out, Camara didn’t referee another game in the tournament. But in the moment, none of that mattered. Scurry was off.

“I was astonished,” she said. “And it took every ounce of patience I had to not lose my mind.”

On a grainy slice of video from ESPN’s archives, one can then hear the call from the sideline go up: “Mia! Mia!” Later, DiCicco yells, “Referee!” with his arms in the air, completely befuddled by what has transpired.

“At some point, I heard my name being called, so I ran to the sideline and they’re like, ‘Here, you got to put this stuff on,'” Hamm said. “And I turned to Tony and I said, ‘Yeah, but don’t you want to put in a real goalkeeper?’ And he said, ‘Of course I do, but I don’t have any subs.’ And so I was like, ‘Ohhhhhh’ — I mean, we weren’t prepared because I wore Brianna’s jersey, which I don’t think was legal, and I used Saskia’s gloves. And so it was one of those situations where they weren’t going to take Tisha out of the center of midfield, and we were up 2-0, so it’s just logical to take a front runner out.”

This is another instance where the passage of time makes memories a little foggy. Hamm insists she had no idea she was the designated goalkeeper.

“It would’ve been nice to know, ‘Hey, listen, if something bad happens, you’re going to go in goal,'” Hamm said. “I might pay attention a little bit more when Tony’s coaching up the goalkeepers about angles on free kicks.”

Heinrichs and Gregg swear they told had Hamm what was up. That said, the key was not to over-coach in that situation. The emphasis was on projecting confidence.

“In that moment, is Mia going to hear much of anything or care much about anything? No, she’s just going to be thinking about, ‘Oh my God, I’m going in goal in the World Cup,'” Gregg said. “And you know, you just want it to be — not matter of fact because obviously it’s not, but you show confidence by, in a way, the less you have to communicate. This is our plan, we’re ready for it. You’re ready. And you know, just keep it matter of fact and not alarming to her.”

‘You’re like Mickey Mouse right now’

One trait goalkeeper coaches talk about is “presence,” which is one of those squishy soccer terms that is tough to define but you know it when you see it. It can be a result of size, being vocally assertive, commanding the box, and of course making saves. Scurry had it. Hope Solo was an all-time leader in the category. Suffice it to say, Hamm didn’t exactly project an aura of intimidation. The jersey was so oversized on her that it looked like a hand-me-down from an older sibling.

Teammate Carla Overbeck recalls looking back at Hamm and thinking, “She looked like this little peanut in this big goal, and then I thought, ‘Uh oh.’ So I just was kind of thinking, ‘OK, we have to lock it down for sure, because they can’t get any shots.”

Foudy was trying to inspire confidence, but couldn’t stifle fits of laughter.

“I was like, ‘What? Because those gloves look like they’re huge on you,'” she said. “Mia was like clapping her hands together, and I was like, ‘You’re like Mickey Mouse right now with those big old gloves on.’ And I think I was giggling at her like, ‘Oh my god, you got this!’ as I was laughing. I mean, obviously it helped that we were 2-0 up rather than 1-0, but still.”

The first test Hamm had to face was the ensuing free kick from Scurry’s “infraction.” Mercifully, the Danish player hit her shot high and wide of goal.

“I think everyone was praying that she just hit it over and she did. I was like, ‘Thank goodness,'” Hamm said. “I kind of was like, ‘All right, let’s just figure it out.’ Because I had confidence in my defense. They’d been taking care of them all day. But you just try to get locked in. And I’m pretty sure if you asked the defense, they kind of focused a little bit harder to make sure no one else cut through or got a shot on goal.”

Given the surreal turn the match had taken, one would expect that there was high anxiety on the sideline. But Heinrichs said Hamm’s ability and experience gave the staff belief she would pull through.

“I wouldn’t say it was tense at all,” Heinrichs said. “I’d say that you have one of the world’s greatest athletes in your goal. You knew she’d be brave physically. You knew she would be brave in the moment. The moment certainly didn’t overpower Mia, and I don’t have any memory of being nervous or having nervous moments when the ball came in. It was rather more of, it’s a great athlete in the goal and we should be fine. And if we keep the ball, keep possession and keep control of the game, we’ll be just fine.”

As it turned out, the remaining minutes were relatively incident-free. Hamm claimed one through ball in the middle of the box — to raucous cheers from the U.S. fans in attendance. She had a goal kick or two. The most anxious situation came when Danish attacker Jeanne Axelsen got to the byline. Venturini closed her down and allowed a low cross to get through, forgetting that it was Hamm in goal and not Scurry.

“I tried to do a front smother, and then the ball was starting to squirt out the side, and I was like, ‘Oh, no.’ So I just held onto it,” Hamm said.

So was this really more stressful than the shootout in 1999? Hamm has no doubts.

“At least [in the shootout] I kind of know what I’m doing,” she said. “And here I was just relying on my athleticism to get me through.”

A few minutes later, the whistle blew and the victory was secure. Could such a scenario happen again? With the advent of five substitutes instead of three, it seems even more of a long shot, but it’s a situation for which teams, including the U.S., still plan. The emergency goalkeeper on the current U.S. squad is still to be determined, though Julie Ertz is believed to be a leading candidate. That said, odds are that Hamm’s spot in the record books — and World Cup lore — is safe.

“I think I enjoyed it more once it was over,” she said. “And you laugh about it and you can tell people, ‘I played in goal in a World Cup match.’ ‘What’s your goals against average?’ I was like, ‘Well, zero.'”

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