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130213 Where are they Now Higgins.jpg

Where are They Now: U.S. WNT Midfielder Shannon Higgins Cirovski

Shannon Higgins Cirovski had the shortest tenure of the original legends with the U.S. Women's National Team, giving up the game at 23 years-old, right after setting up both goals in the victory against Norway in the 1991 FIFA Women's World Cup Final.

She accomplished plenty in just five years and 51 caps, setting a playmaking standard for others to follow. She combined with Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly to create the most overpowering midfield quartet the women's game has seen, and bringing to the National Team a technical and tactical acumen that was far ahead of its time.

The center midfielder, who played under the name Higgins but has been known by her married name since wedding University of Maryland head coach Sasho Cirovski in 1993, set the attacking rhythm for the team that won women's soccer's first great prize, then promptly retired to go into coaching and raise a family, tasks she found even more rewarding.

Those who followed the U.S. women in those early years know the gifts Cirovski brought to American soccer, and if she's been somewhat forgotten in the 22 years that have passed since the '91 triumph in China, it's time to remember what she was all about.

“It's funny, even the people who know [me sometimes forget I played for the National Team],” said Cirovski. “For instance, someone who works with me asked me for a bio. I sent it and he was shocked. He emailed me back: 'I forgot.'

“I don't really push it either. I prefer to be anonymous.”

She's been out of the spotlight since resigning her college coaching job following the 2004 season, her sixth, as Maryland's women's soccer coach, a decision made necessary by the immense pressures of a “24/7 job and three kids that need you 24/7.” That suits her personality just fine, but it also means the American game is missing one of its keener minds.

“She was an extraordinarily tactical player,” said Anson Dorrance, who coached her at the University of North Carolina and with the U.S. WNT. Cirovski was a four-time NCAA champion with the Tar Heels (scoring the winning goal in three finals), three-time All-American and winner of the MAC Hermann Award in 1989.

Dorrance brought her into the national team the summer before her sophomore year. “What I loved about her was she was like having a coach on the field, and I know that's a cliché, but, honestly, I can't say that about too many players.

“She knew how to run my offense,” said Dorrance. “She knew how to adjust to whatever was happening in the game, she didn't need any advice from me on the sideline, and she was just magnificent.”

Cirovski never lost a game at Carolina, where she scored 28 goals with 35 assists in her final two seasons, and was an institution with the U.S. squad by its 11th game in history.

“I was always a great passer, and I had good vision and feel for the game,” said Cirovski, who was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame 11 years ago. “I knew where the ball should go to hurt the opponent, and I had the skills to get it there. And we had Foudy, who was just coming into her own, and Lilly and Hamm, who were playing wide midfield. Foudy was more of a slicing, dicing player, and I'm more of a holding. I complemented those players well.”

The U.S. had a tremendous frontline, too, with Michelle Akers, Carin Jennings Gabarra and April Heinrichs, and a solid back four led by Carla Werden Overbeck. They developed through the occasional international game, usually abroad - Cirovski had just 25 caps in her first four years with the national team - and in the Olympic Sports Festivals. Dorrance's coaching methods, which prized competition and forcing players out of their comfort zones, made them into winners.

“We were a tough bunch,” Cirovski said. “And part of that was just inherent in what Anson taught us. He took all these females that had a will and basically stuck us in all these warrior-like environments. We kind of suffered together and grew together.”

They were steeled by the time the first World Cup arrived in the late fall of 1991, and headed to China confident of winning.

“In the last year or so leading up to that, we had won a lot of games,” Cirovski said. “We had all talked amongst ourselves, said if we don't win, we're not coming home. Those are the expectations we had.”

The Americans edged Sweden in their opener, then blasted Brazil, Japan and Chinese Taipei. In the semifinal, they conquered Germany, a side that had been tough in previous games against the U.S. Archrival Norway was last to fall, with Akers scoring twice with both assists by Cirovski, for a 2-1 victory, and the first world championship belong to the United States.

Cirovski had already started her coaching career by then. She was an assistant coach at George Washington University in 1990 and took charge of the program in '91, before the World Cup. There was no pro league, little programming for the U.S. team - it did not play a game in 1992 - and no promise of a real future.

“It was a tough time to be involved back then,” she said. “There weren’t really any finances going into it, so I felt like I was being supported by my parents in a lot of ways, which was a tough thing to swallow. I could see [coaching] was the path I wanted to go down, and I just decided it was time to be an adult. I was ready to commit myself to the coaching side of things and obviously when my family started, I was ready to be committed to my family.”

She built George Washington into a winner, winning two Atlantic-10 Conference Coach of the Year honors and taking the Colonials to their first NCAA appearance in 1996. She stepped down after the '97 season and spent a year as U.S. Under-18 Women's National Team head coach before taking the job at Maryland before the 1999 season. She quickly built the Terrapins into a winner, with annual NCAA trips and two Atlantic Coast Conference top coach awards.

Had she continued to play, she might have been a chief contributor to the U.S. titles at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup. She watched the evolution of the sport, and its surging popularity, with great excitement.

“Had I not had two daughters at that time,” she said, “I might have thought to lace them back up but by that time we were a family, and I wasn't a Joy Fawcett who could pop babies out and run back onto the field.

“No regrets. I love the fact that I had the opportunity, and it was absolutely awesome watching some of my teammates have lengthy careers. But how can you trade your kids, you know?”

All three daughters - Hailey, now 18, Karli, 16, and Ellie, 10 - grew up with Maryland soccer, all of them played, and Karli has her mother's drive and likely will play collegiately. They celebrated their father's successes (Sasho's teams won NCAA titles in 2005 and 2008) and weren't ready when mom decided to give up college coaching.

But she took three years off, then got “roped into” coaching one of Karli's teams, which was soon competing for national titles. “At that point, I couldn't get out.”

Cirovski coaches the Freestate United's ECNL under-17 team, with Karli, and Freestate North's premier U-11 team, with Ellie. When her kids are grown, perhaps she'll do more.

“I would love to,” she said. “I don't see myself personality-wise as a huge head coach. I realize I could play a really good supportive role. Right now I'm engaged in a nutrition degree and I have a tremendous interest in the psychological side of the game. Those types of things I think I could contribute.”

-- Scott French