12-year veteran felt stifled under Heinrichs

The U.S. national women's soccer team has known for months that it would play for Olympic gold without outspoken and energetic Tiffeny Milbrett.

This week, the reasons why became clearer as Milbrett talked with The Associated Press about quitting the team last fall.

The forward said she craved creativity and freedom on the field and off, and decided she could no longer play for coach April Heinrichs.

"I'm an adult. I'm 31 years old," Milbrett said in an interview from her home in Portland, Ore. "I've played maybe a 1,000 more games in the modern era of the women's game than April has, and I feel like there's things that need to happen in order to facilitate an environment for professional women soccer players.

"If that environment isn't going to be professional, and if that environment isn't going to allow me to be the player that I am, then it's not worth it. Soccer's not a game [in which] you can restrict players, especially creative players and players who have proven themselves at that level."

After the U.S. team finished a disappointing third at the World Cup last fall, Milbrett informed Heinrichs of her decision. Milbrett explained that she felt stifled in Heinrichs' structured game plans and cramped schedule of team dinners, meetings and video sessions.

The American team will not only play without one of its best forwards but also one of its most striking personalities.

The outspoken Milbrett yelled back at anti-American protesters in Australia and had to be dragged away by teammate Brandi Chastain.

"I miss her at lot," Chastain said this month before an Olympic tuneup game against Japan. "I miss the diversity that she brings to this team. We are all very unique and very quirky in our own ways, but her humor and her straightforwardness -- I think we miss that. I hope that she comes back."

Heinrichs downplayed any conflict with her former player or the team.

"I wish Tiffeny Milbrett well," said Heinrichs, adding that she preferred not to discuss the specifics of Milbrett's departure. "There's no ill feelings on my part, and my focus is going to be to keep this team focused on the task at hand and stay committed to the players that are interested [in playing] for us and playing within the team construct, and there's a lot of those players in America right now."

Milbrett's departure adds to the pressure on Heinrichs, who is 0-for-2 in major world tournaments since replacing Tony DiCicco in 2000.

The Americans haven't won big since the watershed Women's World Cup tournament in 1999, losing to Norway in the gold-medal match at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and falling to Germany in the 2003 World Cup semifinals in Portland. The loss there forced Team USA into the Olympic qualifying process for the first time.

"Things didn't work out at the World Cup, but that doesn't mean it's broken," Heinrichs told The San Francisco Chronicle for Friday's editions. "That's sport. You don't win all the time."

Heinrichs' contract runs out after the Athens Games, but she said she's not worried that a renewal of her contract may depend on Team USA winning a gold medal.

"Three or four years ago, I probably would have been naive and insecure enough to say that my career rides on one game," Heinrichs told the Chronicle. "But I don't measure myself on one result. I don't think you can define a coach's career on one event, but if that's the story people want to write, I can't control it. I am doing the best I can, and I just keep doing it."

Milbrett, who is still recovering from surgery in March to repair a cartilage injury to her knee, pulled out of this weekend's WUSA festival in Blaine, Minn. The 12-year veteran has been on what she calls a sabbatical, taking time to grieve the death of her mentor, Clive Charles, who coached Milbrett at the University of Portland. Charles died of prostate cancer in August.

Milbrett scored the goal that won the 1996 gold medal for Team USA in Atlanta. She was also the leading American scorer at the magical women's World Cup in 1999, as well as at the 2000 Olympics. Milbrett has 99 career goals.

For several years, she was by far the most dangerous offensive weapon in the world of women's soccer -- more intimidating and productive for a while than Mia Hamm.

Milbrett said she might play overseas if WUSA doesn't return next year, but it's hard to imagine her returning to the national team under Heinrichs.

"Probably at this point," she said, "it would take a change in coach."

Information from The Associated Press and The San Francisco Chronicle was used in this report.