DiCicco determined to coach

September 18, 2003
By Marc Connolly

It's yet another hot and humid summer day on the July 4th weekend. The fourth in a row, in fact, that's obviously been felt considering the amount of sunburns seen throughout the thousands of players, parents, coaches and fans in Kingston, RI, during this grueling soccer tournament for the youth State Cup winners in the eastern region of the United States.

In the distance stands Tony DiCicco, man who knows all about playing soccer in grueling conditions. After all, it was exactly four years ago when his U.S. Women's National Team was training in Carson, Calif., to prepare for its World Cup final match against China, which was played under intense heat in front of a packed house at the Rose Bowl.

He's as sun-kissed on this day as he was back then. And looking every bit the same if you go by the expressions of the casual soccer followers who have been walking by him all weekend with that "I recognize him, but not sure from where" look on their faces, while the die-hards exchange knowing glances. To them, the presence of a World Cup champion is another reason to be proud of their son or daughter for making it to "Regionals."

However, DiCicco is not here as merely an ambassador or one of the several soccer VIPs that have been roaming around the grounds. He's also not here solely as a 55-year-old father, either. He's here to do what he does best - to coach. And not to just stand on the sidelines as a figurehead or as simply a silent assistant - yes, he's an assistant -- for the U-18 boys team from the Oakwood Soccer Club in Connecticut where his son, Andrew, has played for several years. But to try and inspire one of the best boys teams in the country to get to the national finals for the top four teams in the nation, as though his life depended on it.

Once on the sideline, the familiar soccer vernacular from DiCicco reigns out onto the field throughout the game, whether he's calling incessantly to get to the "second ball" or he's working the officials with a savvy unseen at this level.

Despite the intensity of the matches, there's a certain gleam in the eye of head coach Matt Cameron, who was pleasantly surprised when DiCicco pledged to be the "best assistant you've ever had" when he joined the staff two years ago.

"When I asked Tony to help out," says Cameron, who played collegiate soccer at the University of Hartford, "I did it because I knew he could help make the team better, and me better as a coach. I truly believe he accepted my offer not because his son was on the team, but because it was an opportunity for him to again be surrounded by good players."

Cameron, 29, shakes his head when he thinks of his "assistant" as being one of two people in the U.S. to ever win a World Cup as a head coach (Anson Dorrance being the other), but is quick to point out how the juices get flowing for Tony when he's coaching no matter what the scenario.

"Tony is a competitor," he says. "You can see the enjoyment he gets when he's on the sidelines, especially at the Regionals each year, and how he gets totally wrapped up in the game."

No one who knows Tony would say otherwise, either. The reason he left the National Team job in January of 2000 was to spend time with his wife, Diane, and their four boys. Not because he was sick of coaching or lost the passion for it.

DiCicco on WUSA's collapse
Just one day after the WUSA shut down after three seasons of play, Tony DiCicco kept a positive outlook on a league that he helped run from start to finish.

"I don't want to give up on it," he said. "I know it's a great product. And I think that these women represent their sport as professional athletes better than any other professional athletes in any other sport on the planet."

He makes a great point, as players throughout the league were known to stay as long after games to please autograph-seekers and to talk to their fans as it did to complete the match. The league's founding players -- several of which are on this year's World Cup squad -- also took a paycut to try and help the league sustain.

In the end, it was the league's inability to attract enough corporate sponsors, which left the league with the shortfall of 20 million dollars every year. DiCicco is hopeful that the news of the WUSA's shutdown will attract new investors.

"We're hoping that people out there are saying, Hey, we don't want this to go away,'" he said.

Already, he's had positive feedback from the business community.

"I can tell you, first hand, that I've already talked to some people who are willing to put serious dollars -- a million dollars a year for three years, that sort of thing -- into the league," said DiCicco. "So there are people out there that aren't necessarily our original investors who are interested. If we can get enough of those people to come forward and enough corporations to say that this is important for our society -- for women to have these opportunities and young girls to have role models -- and other sponsors to say they'll make a statement by coming aboard with the revision of the business plan, we might be able to get this thing back up and running. That's where I'm taking my efforts right now.

"It's a setback, but it's not a defeat. "

-- Marc Connolly, ESPN Soccernet.com

"It was the most difficult decision I've ever had to make professionally," says DiCicco. "I've missed it every day, but it was the right decision for me to make. That's how I've been able to live with it. But, sure, I miss the coaching. I miss the teaching."

Most recently, DiCicco has helped start a new club built on the longtime success of his SoccerPlus camps for goalkeepers called FSA/SoccerPlus. As he did with Andrew, who is now in college starting as a freshman for San Diego State, DiCicco is coaching his son, Nicholas, with the U-13s, and is having a lot of fun teaching at this level. "All these young boys are such good kids and fun to work with," he says. "Middle school is a difficult age. Their bodies are changing, their social perspective is changing and they're going through so much. I like that the team gives them stability and a little bit of structure. I'm really enjoying it. This is where the game begins, and that's what's so special about soccer.

"It's not the world stage. There are no reporters there or no TV crews. There are no other agendas or agents there, either. It's just to go out there and have fun and try to win. The purity in that is pretty special."

That's not to say that we'll be seeing DiCicco at the grassroots level for the rest of his career.

With two of his sons in college (Anthony and Andrew), one a junior in high school (Alex), that full house he left the international coaching scene for will be a lot less empty in two years. Of course, his life has been rooted in Weathersfield, Conn., it being the place where he grew up. His parents live a mile down the street from him, and his in-laws are close by as well. But, if the right chance came along, DiCicco says he'd be all ears.

"I have a lot of confidence in my coaching ability - with men or women," he says. "I'm open to any opportunities that are out there, including the National Team job again. I think April has done a good job, and I'm not trying to take her job. I am confident in my ability and I think I adapt well to different environments, and I think I'm good at it."

Despite staying in the game professionally as the commissioner of the WUSA, which shut down its operations on Monday, the Call of the Wild pulling at DiCicco can be seen by several of his former players, including fellow Constitution State native Kristine Lilly.

"I know he misses the fields and being out here," says Lilly, who is about to play in her fourth World Cup. "He loves this more than anything, and his true love is coaching. He belongs on the field."

With the World Cup starting this weekend, DiCicco insists that he's not extra emotional or too nostalgic about the team's run in 1999. He says he hasn't popped the tape from the World Cup final into his VCR, either.

The part that he loves now is when people come up to him and explain where they were when Brandi Chastain clinched the title for the U.S., and how much it affected them.

He also enjoys seeing his old players, and talks how they'll be bonded together for the rest of their lives because of their magical summer together. None more so than Michelle Akers, who was his star player and fiercest competitor during the 1991 World Cup when he was an assistant, as head coach in the 1995 World Cup, the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and in '99 when she was the most dominant midfielder in the tournament.

When asked about his lasting memory from the '99 Cup, DiCicco mentions leaving the Rose Bowl side-by-side with her with gold medals around their necks.

"It was kind of apropos because that was our last time on that stage," he says. "The stadium was still in a frenzy, so it was special to walk off that field with Michelle."

Unfortunately, several lingering injuries and the casting shadow of Father Time made that the final appearance for Akers at such a level.

Here we are four years later, and the same can't be said for Tony DiCicco.

Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: shaketiller10@yahoo.com.