U.S. INJURY PUTS PEARCE ON THE SPOT.
When a faxed invitation arrived from the U.S. women's national soccer team, Christie Pearce thought it was a joke. That was December 1996, and basketball was her primary sport at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J.
Soccer was something she did for fun. Monmouth's women's soccer team drew about 30 spectators a game, mostly parents, and until her senior season it did not have its own locker room. If players wanted their uniforms washed, they did it themselves.
Pearce's flight to San Diego to try out for the national team was only her third plane trip. Not realizing that equipment managers would handle her gear, she took her own detergent and fabric softener. When one of her roommates turned out to be Mia Hamm, she almost panicked. In Pearce's first workout, she nearly fainted from exhaustion.
``It was very intimidating, like being a freshman in college all over again,'' Pearce said.
Her teammates knocked her around in practice, testing her, and they kept asking with puzzled looks where Monmouth was located. Is it Division III? they wondered. Division I, Pearce kept telling them. She quickly proved to be one of the fastest and most athletic players in camp. And tonight, on her 24th birthday, her athleticism might be called upon to defend against frenetic Nigeria in a Women's World Cup match at Soldier Field.
A change in the U.S. lineup might be necessitated by an ankle injury that central defender Kate Sobrero suffered in practice Wednesday. Sobrero is fast and combative, and she made an impressive sliding tackle last Saturday to prevent a goal against Denmark in the United States' opening 3-0 victory.
The ankle injury is not serious, team officials said, but a limping Sobrero might be ineffective against the warp-speed Nigerian attack in the Americans' second game of the tournament. So coach Tony DiCicco was forced to consider alternate plans, which could include Pearce, who has a 30-inch vertical leap, the experience of having started 30 matches the past two seasons, the creativity that comes from being a one-time forward and the one-on-one defensive skills that come from years of playing guard in basketball.
``I feel badly if Kate is not able to play,'' DiCicco said. ``I don't want to change the defense if we don't have to. But Christie is very solid. She's one of our fastest players.''
On the advice of a coaching friend, DiCicco scouted one of Pearce's college matches in the fall of 1996. In basketball, Pearce set a school record with 79 steals one season. In soccer, she scored 79 goals in 80 career matches. Unlike millions of other female soccer players, however, her sporting hero was Patrick Ewing, not Hamm.
Pearce was co-captain of the Monmouth basketball team during the 1996-97 season, which was two months old when DiCicco sent a fax inviting her to try out with the national team. She had an immediate and difficult decision to make. Should she stay and attempt to lead the Hawks to their first postseason tournament bid? Or should she take a chance on soccer?
The WNBA had yet to tip off and no one could predict its stability, so Pearce decided that her future was kicking a ball instead of dribbling it. In February 1997, she left her basketball team and accompanied the national soccer team on a trip to Australia.
``It was a tough decision,'' said Pearce. ``I spoke to my whole team. Some understood, some didn't.''
After flying 15 hours home from Australia, Pearce jumped in a car with her father and drove six hours to play with Monmouth in the final of the Northeast Conference basketball tournament. The Hawks lost, but the immediate disappointment of basketball was buffered by the World Cup and professional possibilities of soccer.
``If there was any sport where I was going to go further, it was going to be soccer,'' Pearce said.
Last Saturday, Pearce walked into Giants Stadium, which was filled with 78,972 spectators, and ``everywhere I looked, I saw someone from high school or college.'' One of her former basketball teammates forwarded a note, wishing her good luck.
Tonight, before a sold-out crowd of 65,000 at Soldier Field, Pearce could find herself playing instead of watching.
``I've been training for six months,'' she said. ``I'm ready and I'm excited to play.''
PHOTO Kate Sobrero, far left, was celebrating with her U.S. teammates Saturday, but an injury in practice Wednesday makes her status questionable for tonight's game in Chicago.
Kathy Willens/Associated Press