U.S. Soccer is celebrating its Centennial year in 2013 and throughout the year ussoccer.com will provide historical content to commemorate 100 Years of the Federation.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.
Linda Hamilton was a warrior for the U.S. Women's National Team before many were aware such a team existed. The Georgian, now 43 and head coach of the women's soccer team at the University of North Florida, won 71 caps in a nine-year international career that came to a close a few months after the 1995 FIFA Women's World Cup.
She was a starting fullback for the Americans when they won the inaugural 1991 FIFA Women’s World Cup in China and finished third four years later in Sweden.
“She was a hammer. She liked to take players out,” said Anson Dorrance, who brought Hamilton into the U.S. team in 1987 and coached her at the University of North Carolina in the final year of a four-time All-American career, after she played three seasons at North Carolina State. “She was very physical, very combative. Sort of an in-your-face defender with tremendous physical courage and with a wonderful capacity to intimidate.”
Hamilton, who has remained involved with U.S. Soccer on the board of directors with the Federation, U.S. Soccer Foundation and U.S. Athletes Council, is a student of the game, and acknowledges her unique style. “I don't know if there's been a player like me since me,” she said. “I'm not saying it makes it better or worse, but there’s been times we sure could have used someone like me.”
Her skills and tenacity suited those early U.S. teams well. She played on the backline in a 3-4-3 formation, opposite Megan McCarthy and then Joy Fawcett, with Carla Overbeck organizing as sweeper.
Overbeck said she could always “count on her to defend her player very well. She was fast and she was physically and mentally tough. She didn't back down from challenges. You always knew she was going to get the job done.”
Hamilton played a key role among many in that first Women's World Cup triumph in China in 1991. The U.S. had a wonderful team, with Michelle Akers, Carin Jennings (now Gabarra) and April Heinrichs up front, a midfield of Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy and Shannon Higgins (now Cirovski), and with Mary Harvey in the nets.
“I have heard it said by Anson so many times: I would have to say I was a blunt instrument. And I played with reckless abandon,” Hamilton said. “We played a very grueling system of man-marking all over the field, so I had to be athletic and strong and fit and fast. My role on the team was sort of an enforcer-type of defender.”
Said Dorrance: “She was so naturally combative, she took that role like a duck to water.”
The U.S. posted three shutouts and outscored six foes, 30-5, en route to the '91 title, beating Norway in the championship game, 2-1. Hamilton has warm memories of the tournament.
“It was the perfect country to have it,” she said. “It took us like two hours to go two miles one time because the whole city was walking and riding bikes to go to the game. The towns that hosted the matches, they would take the day off to go to the game. It was fantastic. You felt like a celebrity. You were being mobbed at tables to give autographs. Literally, mobbed at tables, where you'd think, 'Gosh, I wish we could just eat,' and then you'd think, 'Are you kidding me? This is what we've been asking for.' ”
She started all six U.S. games at the 1995 Women's World Cup in Sweden, when the WNT, coached by Tony DiCicco, were upset by Norway in the semifinals and settled for third place. The competition had improved in four years, but it was a huge disappointment not to repeat as champions.
“All I know is that every time I stepped on the field with those players around me, every time we lost a game, I was not only angry, but shocked,” said Hamilton. “There was not ever a time in any game, no matter what the score was, that I thought we were going to lose. The quality and talent of that group, especially the '91 group, I mean, my gosh! Are you kidding? Every single position, you had the best player in the world.
“Being in that environment and with those players all the time, my development was exponential as a soccer player. I made the team initially because I was athletic and strong and could do a few things pretty well. I stayed on the team because I got so much better and started to do other things a lot better. Every day I had to go up against Mia and Lil and Michelle and April and Brandi [Chastain] ... I couldn't wait for the games, 'cause these girls [on other teams] were nowhere as good as Michelle…It was a really great time.”
Hamilton's knees were deteriorating by '95. She's had seven surgeries, including two ACL repairs, and “could feel myself slowing down. I was getting beat with things that didn't beat me before.”
Her doctor “sort of said, 'Look, you're pretty active. How active would you like to be at the end of your days?' I'd like to be active,” she said. “There's other kids coming up, and I think it was my time. ... You start measuring things, and I had two World Cups, a national championship ]in 1990 at North Carolina], was a four-time All-American. I had a pretty good career, and at that moment there was no professional league.”
Hamilton had gone into coaching before her playing days ended, getting her “A” license while still at North Carolina and starting Old Dominion's women's program in 1994. She served as director of player development for Richmond Strikers Soccer Club while working in the real world -- “I sort of needed to figure out why I got a college degree and find my way elsewhere,” she says -- and discovered what she spent every day looking forward to her club team's practices in the evening.
She took a job as Simon Riddiough's assistant at Hofstra in 2006, then headed to Jacksonville, Fla., to take charge of North Florida's program. She's 43-64-10 in six seasons, nearly .500 in Atlantic Sun play and 20-15-3 at home since 2008.
“The biggest challenge is trying to get the breakthrough win, a win against a big team,” Hamilton said. “And getting talented players to consider your school. We're working toward getting fully funded, but we're not there yet. So I have to be creative in how to use my scholarship dollars and those kind of things. Florida is a very, very talented state, a pool of talent for young athletes."
She enjoys recruiting, says it's “fun to find that diamond in the rough, so to speak” and sees her role as prodding young women to get their college degrees and enjoy their college experiences.
She still plays in training sessions -- “not nearly as much today as I did even a couple of years ago” -- and enjoys her time on the field as much as she ever has.
Had Hamilton been born five or eight or 10 years later, she could have reaped what her generation sowed. But no regrets.
“I guess it's sort of the life philosophy of taking one day at a time,” she said. “I came at a time for helping bring the game to the forefront and get some attention. Somebody's got to be the first to do it, and we'll always be the first Women's World Cup champion. There's something cool about leaving a legacy, so I think I'm fortunate. It's such a minor population, such a low percentage [of people] that gets top play at the level I got to play at for a length of time.”