Magical Meinert up for ultimate challenge

October 4, 2003
By Marc Connolly

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Sitting comfortably in Germany's team's hotel on the eve of its semifinal match against the U.S., head coach Tina Theune-Meyer was asked where her star player, Maren Meinert, ranks against the top players in the world.

"She's the best player," said Theune-Meyer without hesitation.

It's hard to argue with such a sentiment.

Coaches in the WUSA have been quietly echoing similar thoughts about Meinert for the past year due to her outstanding play for the Boston Breakers. The 30-year-old striker scored nine goals and registered 10 assists for the league's regular season champions, and was rightly bestowed with MVP honors over Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach.

Throughout such a triumphant season, the German federation was licking its lips in one regard, yet having sleepless nights at the same time over Meinert since she was vowing to stay retired from international soccer as had been the case for two years after her side won the European Championships in 2001.

Officials from the team made trips to Boston to see if anything had changed during the season, but Meinert kept sticking to the fact that she wanted to spend time with her husband back in Germany and that if she did change her mind, it wouldn't be until after the WUSA regular season and playoffs were over.

During this period, several of her teammates, like Kate Sobrero, and interested onlookers such as April Heinrichs had a sense that the German striker would suit up for her country one more time.

"I'll eat my shoe (if she doesn't play)," said the U.S. coach when everyone was telling her that Meinert was going to play eight months ago.

Nevertheless, it came right down to the wire. Nine days after returning to her home country on August 20, Meinert announced she'd play for Germany, thus making her side one of the favorites in the World Cup, not to mention giving her team a huge confidence boost.

"Everybody said, 'Yahoo!'" joked Theune-Meyer when they heard the news.

Her presence and talented play as the team's link between the strikers and the midfielders has been immense in Germany's run to the semifinals. Though Birgit Prinz is leading the tournament in goals with six, Meinert has arguably been the best player on a German squad that has torched the nets for 20 goals in running through its first four opponents.

"Prinz is much better with Maren Meinert out there," said Theune-Meyer. "She's our connecting player out of the midfield."

As they did in the WUSA, the U.S players have been marveling at Meinert's play, and know that she presents a huge challenge to their defense on Sunday.

"You just have to keep track of her," said Fawcett. "She's all over the place. She's a great playmaker out of the midfield, so our midfielders are going to have to keep a good shape."

"She has all the tools," said Hamm. "There are just areas on the field where she doesn't lose the ball."

Hopefully for the U.S., that area isn't inside the 18-yard box. Part of the plan is to try and limit her ability to turn with the ball much further away from the goal because once she does, magic usually follows due to her great vision and ability to find the seams in defenses.

"She sees those runs that other players don't see," said Kristine Lilly, who was her teammate in Boston for three years.

Heinrichs compares this almost sixth-sense to a professional billiards player who is able to see one or two shots ahead and prepares accordingly.

"She has an idea of what she wants to do with the ball well before she gets it," said Heinrichs. "Her head is always on a swivel. So often, players receive then ball and then think about how they're going to deal with it. She's moving well in advance."

Theune-Meyer marvels at this type of expertise, as well.

"She's very quick with her decisions, and she never looks down at the ball," said the German coach. "She always has a wide view of the field. And she never does what you expect."

Meinert has been playing for the National Team since she was an 18-year-old in 1991, which makes her one of the most experienced players in the world. But her unique savvy suggests that there's more to it than the tactical awareness she's developed on the playing fields.

"Watching her play," said Lilly, "you can tell that she not only grew up playing the game, but also watching it."

Theune-Meyer said that's one of the advantages to growing up in a country that is immersed in soccer.

"Europeans just understand the game," she said.

That understanding to match the talent level seen within the German squad makes Sunday's semifinal against the U.S. the true battle for women's soccer supremacy, and should be one of the more attractive and hotly-contested matches ever seen in a Women's World Cup.

Meinert knows that it'll be the ultimate challenge for her and her teammates.

"I have a lot of respect for them," she said. "I know how hard they work. I think it will be good for women's soccer."

Theune-Meyer realizes that her squad is the definite underdog in this match and will not have the crowd on its side, but she exudes nothing but a calm confidence.

"The U.S. is, of course, the best team," she said. "But we have showed that we can score a lot and we can break down defenses."

That's it right there: Can Germany break down a U.S. defense that has allowed only one goal and none in the past three games?

With Meinert running the show, the likely answer is yes. Hopefully, for the Germans, that type of offensive strength is enough to outlast an equally-feared U.S. attack to pull off the upset and earn themselves a date in the Women's World Cup final next Sunday in Los Angeles.

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