Where are they Now: U.S. WNT Midfielder Tiffany Roberts
U.S. Soccer is celebrating its Centennial year in 2013 and throughout the year ussoccer.com will provide historical content to commemorate 100 Years of the Federation. “Where are They Now” looks back at the career of former National Team Players and catches up with them after their playing days have concluded.
Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak was a role player among stars with the U.S. Women's National Team, a resolute defensive presence who made it possible for the bigger names to do the work that made them icons in the sport. If she wasn't widely celebrated for her efforts, there was never a doubt about her contributions from those who knew best: her coaches and teammates.The Northern California-bred midfielder, who debuted in 1994 when she was only 16 as one of the youngest player in U.S. history, played in her first FIFA Women's World Cup a month after her 18th birthday and won Olympic gold before she was out of her teens. She left a legacy of her own within U.S. Soccer, as a competitor, as a mentor, and as a bridge between the game's pioneers and modern women's soccer.
What she offered – in her words, was an “attitude to defend” as a “tenacious player who was able to recover and close space quickly” and could be counted on to “always be competitive and always do my best.” She was without a doubt a key ingredient to the Americans' successes in the latter half of the 1990s. She spent a decade with the U.S. National Team program, earning 110 caps (with 60 starts), that included three Women's World Cups and the 1996 Olympic gold medal.
“Tiffany and Michelle Akers were my two toughest players,” said Tony DiCicco, who guided the U.S. team from 1995 through the 1999 World Cup triumph. “She was tiny (5-foot-4), but she was tough, very athletic and had an unbelievable engine. She could run up and down the field forever and was just a great teammate. She made you smile when you saw her.”
Roberts absorbed everything she could from the senior players and in turn became a mentor to those who followed, serving as a “glue” figure, one who means so much to the chemistry within the group.
“I felt like, chemistry-wise, I offered something to the team,” said Roberts, now 35 and co-head coach with her husband, former MLS defender Tim Sahaydak, for the women's team at Virginia Commonwealth. “I was very connected to the pioneers and that older group, like [Julie] Foudy, Mia [Hamm] and Lil [Kristine Lilly], because they had been taking care of me since I was 16. And the younger ones that came up behind me, I was that person kind of in the middle. I think it helped with that chemistry in the locker room and keeping the team unified.”
Roberts was flabbergasted when she was first called into the National Team following an impressive and athletic performance at the 1993 ODP interregional tournament over Thanksgiving weekend. She was invited into the next U.S. camp as well and made her debut at the 1994 Algarve Cup – going the full 90 in a victory against Portugal. She was a key player in the lineup as the U.S. participated in the second Women’s World Cup in Sweden the following year.
“I never really had the confidence to be a starter at such a young age,” said Roberts, who won two NCAA titles at the University of North Carolina. “I always had to talk myself up: 'You're good enough, you're supposed to be here.' But inside I was like, 'I don't think I'm supposed to be here.'
“I looked up to those women so much, and they were role models of mine. I just couldn't believe I was as good as them. Which I still know to this day – I don't think I was. I just think the qualities I had filled a role for the team at the time. My defensive qualities and being young, they saw some potential in me. It was eye-opening, but the team was very open, very welcoming, and they were the greatest leaders and role models. I think that I'm the luckiest person in the world to have experienced that.”
She started four of six games at the 1995 World Cup, including the 1-0 semifinal loss to Norway, a result she calls “heart-wrenching,” and a year later was a pivotal player in the Americans' triumph at the Atlanta Olympics.
“I used to have coaches say, 'What is Tiffany Roberts doing on your team?' ” DiCicco said. “They didn't get what she brought to the team. I knew I was going to get a supreme effort. The thing I remember is when I gave her [Norway playmaker] Hege Riise to mark in the Olympics [semifinal victory], and Tiffany marked her out of the game.”
It was the kind of assignment Roberts loved most.
“I totally embraced that, as a specific role and a specific job,” she said. “I like when it's really clear what I need to do. I loved taking on that responsibility. Even if it was the best player in the world, it didn't matter to me. I did what I needed to do and what I need to do for the team. I loved that the coaches on the team had trusted me to take on such an important role.”
She was part of the iconic 1999 World Cup championship team three years later, but her role on the field had lessened. She played in just two of the Americans' six games, going the distance in a victory over North Korea to close group play. She called the support the U.S. team received “mind-blowing.” More than 90,000 were on hand at the Rose Bowl for the title game against China, with millions more watching on television.
“Everyone watched that match,” she said. “It really put women's soccer on the map. Not just women's soccer, but women's sport. I'm just a lucky girl to be a part of that group.”
April Heinrichs took charge of the team as preparations began for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and Roberts wasn't in her plans. But she had been allocated to the Carolina Courage for the 2001 start to the Women's United Soccer Association, the first fully professional women's league in the U.S., and built a tremendous relationship with her coach, Marcia McDermott. McDermott convinced her to focus only on what she could control and told her that if she concentrated on the areas needing improvement, she would become a better player, and that could lead her back to the U.S. team.
It worked. She was a standout defensive midfielder for the Courage, which won the 2002 WUSA title after finishing last in the inaugural campaign. She adored her time with Carolina.
“I had such a bigger role for the Courage and I really enjoyed that,” Roberts said. “I felt like this is exactly how I pictured my soccer career. I was so happy. I was playing my best soccer, I had the best team, and I had the best coach.”
Heinrichs called her back in, and she was part of the U.S. team that played in the 2003 World Cup. It was a difficult month for the Americans. The WUSA announced it was going on hiatus – folding, it turned out – just before the games began, and the U.S. team endured a travel schedule that put it at a competitive disadvantage. Germany won the semifinal showdown in Portland en route to the title and the U.S. finished third.
Greg Ryan took over for Heinrichs after the tournament, and although he included Roberts in his pool, he never called her in for a camp. There was no pro league, and she wasn't sure about her future, so she called him and asked.
“I needed to move on with my life,” she said. “I couldn't just continue to train [on my own] and not know if I was going to be on the National Team. I needed to make a living. I reached out to him and said, 'Just give it to me straight here, I need to know.' And he was very honest. He said if he needed to make a roster for residency, he would not select me.”
She was not nearly done with the game, though. Roberts and Sahaydak had met while at UNC, before Sahaydak signed a Project 40 contract with MLS in 1997, and they began dating in 1999. They were married in 2005 and, with Roberts' playing career over, began coaching together in Northern California.
VCU came calling about a year and a half later, and they were hired as co-coaches before the 2007 season. They have posted a 55-50-19 record in six years, reaching their conference tournament's title game three times.
“I really didn't know college coaching was what I wanted to do,” said Roberts, who has two daughters, Layla, four, and Evie, two. “Looking back, it was such a blessing, and it's exactly what I'm supposed to be doing. I love college coaching. I love mentoring women this age.”
The Sahaydaks enjoy working together immensely.
“We're totally different personalities, but we're the same with our philosophies and values, and on top of that we have so much respect for one another,” Roberts said.
“When you trust each other so much, it really makes things so easy. We're a great team and really complement each other.”