July 13, 2001
By Mike Jensen
Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer
Just the previous fall, Mandy Clemens had been named the top player in women's college soccer. But by the spring of last year, Clemens wasn't looking at herself as a soccer player at all. For a brief time, she saw herself as a runner, training to be a half-marathoner.
Crestfallen that she hadn't been invited to the camp that would determine last year's U.S. Olympic team, Clemens decided to spend her final college semester in Australia. She stayed almost six months in Brisbane.
Now a professional soccer player, Clemens is a starting midfielder for the Philadelphia Charge. She kept only a loose connection to the sport while she was down under. Clemens was on her own, living in an apartment with three Australians. She would take a soccer ball to a local park to fool around, or she would jump into a pickup game with men from Ireland, England and Brazil. "All different styles," she said, loving it.
Other than that, she ran. Six miles a day. On her 22d birthday last September, she ran a 10-kilometer race in Brisbane, placing third in the women's division.
Jerry Smith, her coach at Santa Clara University, said Clemens had talked every year of wanting to spend a semester abroad but never could do it because of soccer. She wanted new experiences. It's not that she doesn't love soccer, he said. Quite the opposite. Her passion for the game is probably her greatest asset.
But her time away from the sport also taught her a lesson, Smith said. Clemens, who will play against her hometown team - the San Diego Spirit - at 7 tonight at Villanova Stadium, figured she lost 12 or 15 pounds during her time away from the sport.
"It was a valuable lesson for her," Smith said. "She learned, 'I've got to be careful about what experiment I do.' Her experiment was with nutrition. She learned there are consequences for that. She got weaker physically, which affected her mentally. . . . She said, 'I want to get lean and mean. I don't want any toxins. I can't eat this or that.' "
When she showed up to play in the WUSA, some people were startled. Clemens said that U.S. women's national team coach April Heinrichs told her she didn't look like a soccer player. Clemens told Heinrichs, who had cut her from that Olympic camp, about her experiences, but also about how committed she was to her future in the sport, about how she was on her way back.
Clemens didn't have to worry about making the Charge. She already had a no-cut, five-year contract. She was one of the 24 American players initially allocated to the eight WUSA teams. The founding players - such as Brandi Chastain, who had been her assistant coach at Santa Clara and is married to Smith - decided she should be among them.
She had the credentials. She holds Santa Clara records for most career goals (67), assists (65) and points (199). She became just the fifth person in NCAA history to record at least 60 goals and 60 assists in a career. As a senior, she led Santa Clara to an undefeated regular season and a No. 1 national ranking in 1999 before the Broncos were beaten by Notre Dame in the NCAA semifinals. That season, Clemens received the Hermann Trophy and the Missouri Athletic Club award, the Heismans of college soccer.
Being selected by the stars of the sport was a huge honor, she said. But it also brought pressure. She had been assigned to Philadelphia before the team had even hired a coach.
"Mark didn't choose me for his team," Clemens said of Charge head coach Mark Krikorian. "You go to a place, you don't know if the coach likes you. There's pressure there."
She went in not as strong as she had been in college, then injured a knee in the preseason and couldn't practice for two weeks.
Krikorian had seen that she wasn't in great shape. And he said he was asking her to take a different role. At Santa Clara, she had excelled as a pure forward. With the Charge, Krikorian put her at wing midfielder. She had more defensive responsibilities. Realizing she was behind, Clemens talked with Krikorian after he left her off the traveling squad for the team's second game at Atlanta. She told him he had made the right move.
That has been the only game she hasn't played in, and she soon hit the starting lineup. With two goals and an assist, she is Philadelphia's third-leading scorer. More important, Krikorian has come to understand that, underneath her easy-going Southern California fašade, she was tortured when she couldn't practice.
"There's no sense of entitlement for Mandy," Krikorian said.
"I think that Mark knows I'm not out there just for the show," Clemens said. "I'm going to put in the work."
Her vacation from the sport was good for her, Clemens said. She hadn't had a real break from soccer since she was 16. But she isn't looking to run any half-marathons any time soon.
"I'm so passionate about soccer," she said. "In some ways, that can be one's meditation, one's focus. When I'm playing my game, I'm not thinking about anything else. My mind is calm."
Mike Jensen's e-mail address is [email protected].