At home on a grand stage

At least two people on the U.S. Women’s National Team felt right at home this weekend when they played Canada at RFK Stadium.

The Old Dominion state is the backyard for both U.S. coach April Heinrichs and midfielder Angela Hucles. Heinrichs, who bought a house in Gainesville almost two years ago, coached the 24-year-old Virginia Beach native at the University of Virginia from 1996-1999.

During a pre-game practice on the campus of George Mason University this week, they reflected on their homecoming of sorts.

“Since 1987, really Northern Virginia has felt like home to me,” said Heinrichs, a Colorado native who starred at North Carolina before playing on the 1991 World Cup team. “It’s wonderful. I am excited to play any game with the national team because wherever we go people really make us feel welcome and special … And RFK, I have more people wanting tickets than I have access to tickets.”

“It’s just good to be back in a familiar area,” said Hucles, who is the Cavaliers’ all-time scorer and a current member of the WUSA’s Boston Breakers. “I played at George Mason in college and seeing the Virginia license plates is always just a neat thing.”

Heinrichs coached youth soccer in the Northern Virginia area in 1987 and 1988 before spending a year as an assistant coach at William & Mary. After a year as Princeton’s head coach, Heinrichs took over Maryland and finished as the winningest coach in Terrapins’ history. In 1996, she took over Virginia and took the Cavaliers to four straight NCAA Tournament appearances in arguably the toughest league [ACC] in the country.

In 1996, Hucles made a commitment to play for the Cavaliers before Heinrichs even took the position. It turned out to be quite a happy marriage between player and coach, though.

“When she was named the head coach [at Virginia], the team was just thrilled,” Hucles said. “And just to have her experience, someone of her caliber come to coach was just a good thing.”

“The thing I knew right away is Angela is talented, she’s athletic, she’s skillful, she’s very smooth -?we call her ‘Smooth,'” Heinrichs said. “But you know there’s a lot of players in America that are athletic and talented and smooth and have good touches and having those qualities aren’t enough to make the national team.”

The intrinsic qualities that Hucles possessed made Heinrichs believe that she would have a successful post-collegiate career – just not necessarily on the soccer field.

“Angela had been in and out of our national pool while she was a collegiate player and I was always supportive of her national team career,” Heinrichs said. “But when she graduated collegiately, my assumption was that she would do what a lot of U. Va. grads do, she would go in the business world, the working world. They are very serious achievers.”

But playing soccer was too important for Hucles, who ended up being drafted by the Breakers in 2000. In her rookie season, 2001, the slender 5-foot-7 midfielder scored three goals and four assists. In 2002, she was selected to play for the U.S. National team after spending three years [1997-1999] on the U.S. 20-and-under National Team.

Hucles has since started five of the team’s nine World Cup tuneups so far, garnering 18 caps and scoring her first international goal on Nov. 6, 2001 against Costa Rica.

“I had posters of this team when I was growing up and each time I had the chance to watch them on television, I’d do it,” Hucles said. “…I always wanted to be here. To actually have this opportunity, I cherish it and don’t take it for granted.”

“She found success and now she’s playing next to Kristine Lilly, she’s playing next to Kate Sobrero and she’s looking around, going, ‘I am playing against some of the best players in the world, maybe I can play,'” Heinrichs said. “But I think it was the first time in her life that she’d been truly challenged.”

Hucles admitted she was somewhat star struck when she began playing with the household names of U.S. Soccer. But having someone believe in her and that knew her game like Heinrichs did was a blessing.

“Having that connection helps because coming into this situation, the players are great and [are] people that I have looked up to for years. So a familiar face is always nice. Having her here, she’s been extremely supportive and she’s a great coach.”

It’s the first time training for a World Cup for Hucles -?the team’s only player from Virginia. For Heinrichs, it’s the first World Cup as the team’s head coach. With the rigorous travel demands on both players and coaches, both Heinrichs and Hucles relished their time close to home.

And they closed it out in style, easily beating Canada 6-1.

“We’ll go out to RFK and hopefully play well for them [the fans],” Heinrichs said last Wednesday.

Mission accomplished.

Kipp Hanley is a staff writer for the Potomac News & Manassas Journal Messenger. Reach him at (703) 878-8053 or e-mail him at [email protected].