US SoccerUS Soccer

A Head Above The Rest

U.S. defender Amber Brooks is winning bushels of air balls at the 2008 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, a testament to the value of learning soccer technique at an age when Cat in the Hat is required reading material.

If a ball goes up in the air against the U.S. U-17 Women’s National Team, odds are it’s coming down somewhere near Amber Brooks.

While heading has been called out as a weakness for girls in the United States, Brooks is part of a new generation of players who may be changing that stigma.

“It’s always just been natural for me,” said Brooks of her propensity winning the air ball. “It’s sort of like an instinct. I just like to head the ball.”

Of course, her mom’s early coaching probably had something to do with that. When Brooks was five or six, her mom would throw a beach ball up in the air. Knowing it wouldn’t hurt, Brooks would bash it with her head.

Her mom moved on to a volleyball, then a small soccer ball and eventually a full-size one.

It certainly helped that Brooks had an excellent visual picture as well. She has two big brothers, one six years older and one nine years older. She went to all their high school soccer games and in fact played on a boys’ soccer team until she was 13 years old. She was also the only girl on her middle school hoops team and played club basketball with boys until she got to high school, meaning she is no stranger to the rough and tumble challenges that inevitably come with winning head balls.

Through the first round of the 2008 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, Brooks had gotten her head to several corner kicks, just missing the frame, but her talent in the air paid off in a big way during the quarterfinal against Korea Republic. She worked hard to get under a corner kick to the far post and leapt high to send the ball back into the middle where Courtney Verloo powered it into the roof of the net to give the USA a 1-0 lead.

“The girl was all over me,” said Brooks of her marker. “The ref told her cool it so I was able to get a little distance from her. My run was supposed to crash the middle of the goal, but the ball came to the far post and I had enough time to back up. I knew I couldn’t score so I sent it back across the goal hoping someone could get a touch on it and Courtney was in the perfect spot.”

After playing mostly outside back for the U.S. U-17s this year, Brooks has played a key role for the team at defensive midfield over the past two games, consistently winning balls in the air and on the ground with crunching tackles. She has also been able to contribute to the U.S. attack with quick passes after she’s stepped in front to win balls to the opposing team’s forwards.

“That’s my favorite position,” said Brooks of the spot patrolled so well by Shannon Boxx on the full U.S. Women’s National Team. “Since I’m more central, I can get to more of the head balls and I have more freedom to kind of run around. I can get more involved in the attack than I can at outside back and it just seems more of a natural position for me.”

So, what’s the key to winning all her head balls? The ingredients that make up a good header are no secret, but Brooks has them all, except maybe the height. Take some excellent timing, throw in some bravery and aggression and a hunger to get to the ball along with good technique and a lack of fear, and you’ve got yourself a ball-winner.

“You have to position yourself in a way that you can not only get to the ball, but not foul at the same time,” said Brooks, who scored twice on headers at CONCACAF qualifying for this Women’s World Cup. “Most people would think I’m not good at heading because I’m not that tall, but I think I have pretty good ups. (U.S. head coach) Kaz (Tambi) has always said that even if you can’t win it to make sure and jump to make it harder for the opponent to win it. I just don’t think you can let anyone win a free head ball.”

At 5-foot-5, she is indeed not the most towering player on the field, but her knack for beating taller girls in the air is something that will serve her well at whatever level she plays. And if sometimes bodies go flying, well, that’s just part of the game.

“Obviously, tall girls are harder to deal with, but I try to get in better starting position when the ball is in the air,” she said. “I think it’s all about timing. I consider myself pretty good at not pushing them, but everyone gets called for a foul once in a while.”

Showing some sophistication beyond her years, she sometimes even tries to direct her headers to the forwards to start some counter attacks.

“Sometimes, when I have time, I try to be accurate on my clearances,” she said. “I told Vicki (DiMartino) and Courtney (Verloo) to try to post up and maybe I can get them the ball, but sometimes I am not that accurate. I just want to get a head on the ball and send it back into their half.”

As a freshman forward in high school, Brooks scored 28 goals and 16 of them came with her head. Her headers for the USA not only help the team keep the pressure on opponents, but certainly serve to inspire her teammates as well.

“People always ask me if heading the goalie punts hurt, but they don’t if you head them correctly,” she said. “For sure, I get a few nose balls, but usually my timing is good enough that I don’t do myself any damage.”

Well, most of the time. Last May she broke her jaw when another girl’s head cracked her in the side of the face, but despite the intense pain, she didn’t know it was broken until a month later when she went to get her wisdom teeth x-rayed.

Yes, Brooks is a tough cookie.

By that time, her jaw was starting to heal, but the doctors told her if she had come in a week earlier, they might have had to wire her jaw shut. Smoothies and liquid food for a month?

“I’d rather play with the pain,” Brooks says.

Spoken like someone who enjoys winning head balls.