Lauren Gregg and Tony DiCicco were assistant coaches together on the USWNT team that went to China for the first World Cup in 1991. By Gregg’s account they logged thousands of hours of video study, watching whatever grainy footage they could get their hands on in order to be fully prepared for very opponent that would come their way. DiCicco though, had one other agenda during the trip that, 26 years later, is more famous for how few people knew they were there than for how many people actually remember it.
“He looked all over China for the perfect vase for his wife,” Gregg recalled. “When he found it he was willing to carry it probably two miles on his shoulder. It was literally four or five feet tall. His love for his family was always present.”
A simple anecdote about a complex man who traveled the world trying to forge a better place for women’s soccer. Whether coaching the most famous team of all time or coaching young kids at his SoccerPlus camps in Connecticut, Tony DiCicco never strayed far from his goal of helping to advance soccer in the United States.
Tony DiCicco's Resume. 1980.
Goal: "To significantly contribute to the growth of soccer in this country." ✅
So proud of you Dad. pic.twitter.com/OiLk5wsNyZ
— Anthony DiCicco (@DiCiccoMethod) June 24, 2017
By the time the 1996 Olympics rolled around, DiCicco was in charge of the program and about to guide it through a four-year period that helped lay the foundation for the future of women’s sports. Triumphs at the ’96 Games in Atlanta (soccer took place at various venues in surrounding areas) and the 1999 World Cup in the U.S. showed that women were more than capable of capturing the imagination of a country both as athletes and role models.
It was during these years where the DiCicco legacy was made. The players rightly get the lions’ share of the credit for those tournaments, but things could have ended much different if not for the steadying hand of DiCicco.
“Tony was masterful at turning pressure into opportunity,” Gregg said.
As the years pass—Monday was 18 since the ’99 final—specific memories tend to fade and images like Brandi Chastain on her knees, jersey in hand showing off her sports bra and six-pack abs to the world, begin to represent the legend. But Chastain was involved in another moment during the 1999 World Cup that nearly sunk the ship before it arrived at its final destination.
In the quarterfinals against Germany, a Chastain own goal put the U.S. in a hole five minutes into the match. The U.S. got level, but conceded again during first half stoppage time. If there was pressure going into the tournament, it was multiplied exponentially with the U.S. in the locker room 45 minutes from a premature exit.
“The first person to Brandi after she scored the own goal (was) Carla (Overbeck),” Gregg said. “She looked at her dead in the eye and said, ‘We need you. Now.’ So the changes had already started. Some players would have not said anything. Some players would have gotten on a teammate. That’s the kind of leadership we had on the field.
“Tony extended that at halftime. (He said) we just need to keep doing what we do. That was sort of our whole mission in ’99. We were prepared. We’ve done everything to be ready. We are ready. And we have an opportunity this half to show that. We just kept focusing on what we’ve done all along to get us here.
“That’s sort of the essence of Tony’s coaching. His book title is Catch Them Being Good. We’re going to focus on what we’re doing well. We can’t point fingers now. It’s not going to get us anywhere. But if we focus on what we do well, individually and collectively, how hard we’ve worked and see this as an opportunity, we’ll be okay. And it was just about ‘we’re okay.’”
Sure enough, Chastain scored the equalizer four minutes into the second half. Joy Fawcett scored the game winner after which Kate Markgraf (then Kate Sobrero) paid up on a bet to die her hair red if Fawcett scored a World Cup goal. Things were back on course.
Gregg said that the coaching trait that set DiCicco apart was his willingness and ability to listen.
“He had this unique way with each person of helping them find the best version of themselves,” she said.
“Tony was often faulted by leadership for how much he listened to people. But listening doesn’t mean being controlled or changed or that you follow them. It’s an art of leadership; it’s an art of a very strong leader who can listen to the opinion of other people. That’s something Tony did so well. Tony was never afraid of bringing in people to compliment him and compliment his weakness. He helped me bring out the best version of myself by allowing me a voice. It was okay to disagree. A lot of our strength and our relationship and our team came out of our disagreements. It defined the best way to move forward by taking in more than one perspective. People saw it as a weakness but it was an incredible strength.”
(writer’s note: I asked Gregg for examples about important disagreements between her and DiCicco. She passed on the question saying the timing was not right.)
DiCicco’s first major tournament in charge of the U.S. ended too early. Norway won the 1995 World Cup, beating the United States in the semifinals along the way. After getting the pesky 3rd place match out of the way (a 2-0 win over China) DiCicco and his staff got to work immediately on 1999. “We did not waste a second,” Gregg said. One of the things DiCicco did was convince U.S. Soccer to bring on Dr. Colleen Hacker to be the team’s full-time, sports psychologist.
“Tony was not afraid to compliment his deficiencies,” Gregg said. “He didn’t feel like he was the best motivator. And be brought in Colleen Hacker. I remember in the early days it was sort of laughed at that we wanted a sports psychologist. Now it’s common place. That potentially showed a vulnerability, but he said no, if this is an area that might gain us a percent, I want to do it.”
Gregg said DiCicco was also ready to fight for the right people to fill out his staff and then fight to get them treated the right way once they were there. “There’s so many countless moments of making sure it was done the right way, and trying to propel the team and make them better.”
Even as DiCicco uncovered every stone, from Colleen Hacker to tireless hours of watching video, he never lost his perspective. Gregg remembers challenging opposing coaching staffs to games of two-v.-two in the midst of major tournaments. Orlando Pride coach Tom Sermanni recently recalled bringing a young Australia team to the United States to play a series of friendlies against the U.S. ahead of the 1996 Olympics.
“He was a good friend to me then. He embraced our team. The staffs would go out after the game. We would play golf together. All that sort of stuff. He really opened the door to me both on and off the football field. He had been a great thing ever since.”
As planning for the 1999 World Cup took hold, organizers decided to defy FIFA and put the tournament in the country’s biggest stadiums. The gambit paid off not only in the short term, but the long term. The affects of that summer spectacle are felt today in the United States and around the world.
“Most people know that FIFA requested that we go into high school stadiums, max 10,000 seats,” Gregg said. “To (then U.S. Soccer president) Alan Rothenberg’s credit, he said no. This team is bigger than that, greater than that, and we’re going to sell out the biggest stadiums in this country.”
History shows that mission was accomplished. Often overlooked is the contribution of the players in selling themselves to the public. Firmly behind them was the coaching staff, led by Tony DiCicco.
“After practice it was not uncommon for one to two to three hours of a day to be spent on media, public appearances, interviews—to sell their story, to sell the game. This team embraced that.
“It was because of Tony’s leadership. A lot of coaches wouldn’t have allowed that extra burden on their players’ time and energy. But we had two missions in the 90s. One was to win. Equally as important was to sell the game and grow the game for the next generation.”
The next generation has already given way to the generation after that. Sam Kerr and Mallory Pugh are part of that one. They combined for five goals over the weekend including one each in the 90th minutes that changed the results of their respective NWSL matches.
At 27, Julie King is a bit older. Friday night, in front of several members of DiCicco’s ’99 team who were in the area to honor their coach, King played her 100th game as a Boston Breaker. She arrived in 2012, right after DiCicco left. Consequently they never met, but his impact was not lost on her.
“For me it was kind of cool that it happened on Tony’s tribute night,” King said following an on-field tribute to DiCicco on Friday night. “It really is a reflection of his work and what he did for women’s soccer in the United States that I have had the opportunity to play 100 games. It’s a huge tribute to him honestly.”
Lauren Gregg will miss the soccer chats, the soccer chats that never ended no matter where life took them or what life threw at them.
“There are so many thousands of stories and moments,” she said. “I’m going to miss him. During games we’d be texting. It’s like a family member. Our link was largely through soccer and what’s going on in the world or the professional league, or a player, or the national team. There’s not going to be a moment when I’m not watching a game and wanting to pick up my phone and text him. That’s going to be hard.
“I hope I can do all of the wonderful moments we had together justice by trying to live up to the example he set for all of us—as a person and as a coach.”
A few other thoughts
-I was going to leave this space just to Tony DiCicco, but I can’t help but be curious what he would have thought of Sam Kerr’s hat trick. With Sky Blue becoming the first team to reach 100 NWSL matches and Kerr scoring the first WoSoPro hat trick ever at Yurcak Field to lead her team to a win from 2-0 down—in 12 minutes—it just couldn’t go without being mentioned.
-You already know the Player of the Week Vote was unanimous so yes I voted for her followed by McCall Zerboni and Marta.
-On the day Mallory Pugh came to NWSL, could you have imagined she would score two goals, including the equalizer in the 90th minute, and barely scratch the surface for most talked about story of the week?
-Kerr’s hat trick was great, but I don’t ever remember seeing FC Kansas City so discombobulated defensively. Even down a player it seemed like they should have been able to see it out from 2-0 up.
-Lindsey Horan’s free kick was spectacular, but Jane Campbell didn’t exactly get a good read on it and got her feet tangled in her attempt to save it.
-There is no appeal process for red cards in NWSL, but a PRO official tells me the red cards to Carli Lloyd and Shea Groom were both the correct calls.
-Finally, Tony DiCicco’s oldest son Anthony spent a good part of his Monday “live tweeting” the 1999 World Cup final. He tweeted moments from the match and memories from the day at approximately the time they happened on July 10, 1999. Start here https://twitter.com/DiCiccoMethod/status/884470706062405632 and then check Anthony DiCicco’s time line (@diciccomethod) to relive a portion of that important afternoon.
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