Wagner's Ready for her Close Up

Sept. 20, 2003

By Mark Emmons
Mercury News

Aly Wagner is sleeping. But she is awakened -- in a new Adidas commercial for the Women's World Cup -- by the sounds of the Chinese team training in a courtyard below.

She gathers her U.S. national squad teammates to watch the Chinese perform sort of a synchronized, soccer-style tai chi. Then China star Sun Wen executes a complicated juggling routine and passes the ball to determined-looking Wagner: as if to say, OK, now let's see what you've got.

It is no accident that Wagner is the commercial's centerpiece. Marketing people are paid to spot The Next Big Thing before the rest of us. And the field is set for Wagner, the former Presentation High and Santa Clara University standout, to stake her claim as the world's next soccer star and become one of this country's most recognizable female athletes.

Yet even as the United States begins defense of its 1999 World Cup title Sunday against Sweden, Wagner is doing her best to downplay articles that have fed into the idea that she is the heir apparent to Mia Hamm.

``I don't write those stories, and I don't read them,'' said Wagner, 23. ``I only hear these things second-hand. I have my own expectations, and as far as I'm concerned, I'm only trying to live up to those.''

Maybe, but much is expected of Wagner, a rare playmaking midfielder who instinctively knows what to do with the ball without first having to think about it. And her potential impact stretches beyond the white lines.

The era of Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy and the other mainstays who put women's soccer on the map probably will end with the 2004 Athens Olympics. Soccer desperately needs a fresh face it can sell -- especially when the American game is in limbo after the folding this week of the Women's United Soccer Association.

``What Aly Wagner can do with a soccer ball is provide entertainment value,'' Santa Clara Coach Jerry Smith said. ``Fans have to be entertained. People will pay to see Aly play much the way they'll pay to see Landon Donovan play. By virtue of her ability, she has a responsibility to carry the torch forward for women's sports.''

Wagner, whose outgoing personality is more like that of Chastain than of the media-shy Hamm, is straight from central casting. She is comfortable in front of a camera -- hence, the Adidas ad, a role in a Bud Light commercial and, well, lots of pre-World Cup buzz.

``I'm really doing a lot of this stuff for women's soccer, to keep it out in the public eye,'' Wagner said. ``That does mean getting more recognition as an individual. But my main motivation is keeping the spotlight on soccer.''

In some ways, Wagner has been preparing for this moment for most of her life.

She began playing soccer at age 5. Her mom, Vicki, not only coached her, but also U.S. national squad teammate Danielle Slaton. And even though her parents tried to expand Wagner's interests -- such as forcing her to take five years of piano lessons -- soccer remained her passion.

``I remember once when she was playing successfully against boys, one little boy was annoyed and told her, `Your best friend is the soccer ball,' '' Vicki Wagner said. ``That really was the way it went with her. She would take the ball on trips. She would juggle in the airport. Wherever we went, the ball was always part of her baggage.''

Wagner starred at Presentation and at Santa Clara, where she led the Broncos to the 2001 national title. But there also were challenges. She injured the anterior cruciate ligament in both of her knees, and she was the last person cut from the '99 World Cup and 2000 Olympic teams.

``I remember watching the '99 World Cup and I was jump-roping in my room,'' Wagner said. ``I told myself, `I'm going to be there in four years.' ''

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, Wagner is glad she was dropped from those teams because it makes her long path to this World Cup all that much more sweet.

``I'm not taking anything for granted because it didn't come easy for me,'' she said. ``So I can be proud of myself for never giving up on my dreams.''

The challenges, though, continued this year. The San Diego Spirit made her the No. 1 pick of the WUSA draft. But Wagner did not exactly take the league by storm. She was a marked player as defenders converged on her whenever she touched the ball. Her two goals and four assists were not eye-opening for someone who arrived with so much hype.

When Wagner would talk with her college coach, she told Smith that playing professionally was much more difficult, physically and mentally, than she had anticipated. After the season she was traded to Boston -- which became meaningless after the league folded.

``It was a demanding year for her,'' April Heinrichs, the U.S. coach, said. ``Now she's going straight to the World Cup. The difficulties she faced surprised her. She'll also be the first to admit, I'd rather be hardened, challenged, battered, beat up and be a better player at the end of it so that I'm ready for the World Cup.''

That is exactly Wagner's thinking.

``Even though these last six months weren't exactly what I expected, I've taken some lessons out of the experience that will help me,'' she said.

Still, it is not clear what Wagner's role will be with the U.S. squad. Heinrichs has a deep roster, and she purposely has been vague about what her lineup will look like. If she elects to go with three midfielders, instead of four, there is a chance Wagner might even come off the bench instead of start.

``Aly is the best final passer in the world,'' Heinrichs said. ``But we have other players who can make the final pass. If Aly is marked out of a game, does that mean we won't be any good? If they say, All we have to do is mark Aly Wagner out of the game to beat the United States, well, we have to be more versatile than that.''

Wagner said she is willing to do whatever is asked of her, and for now she is simply enjoying the moment and the attention -- like the TV ads.

``Those were pretty cool,'' she said. ``The Adidas one was shot up in Vancouver, and it was like a little mini-movie set. You've got people working on your hair and your makeup. You're doing all these different takes, and you have no idea what they're going to use in the end.''

As the spot ends, Wagner has trapped the pass from the Chinese player.

The next move is all hers.

Just like at the World Cup.