Staples bids for U.S. soccer berth


Mike Curry peered across the Howard Community College soccer field, searching his memory for the first time he saw Thori Staples.

"It was on this very field," Curry said. "She was 15 at the time. A girl on the other team made a pass back to the goalkeeper, not knowing how fast Thori was. Thori raced over to intercept and touched it around the keeper and into the back of the net. My mouth dropped open."

Curry, who subsequently coached Staples in her years on the Columbia Crusaders age-group team, was at Howard CC Sunday to watch the U.S. women's national team practice. In particular, he was there to watch Staples, a defender out of Joppatowne High and a rising junior at North Carolina State.

The U.S. women are training in Howard County this week for the Chiquita Cup, a round-robin featuring four of the top five finishers in the 1991 World Championships -- China, Germany and runner-up Norway in addition to the victorious Americans.

The United States, which will defend its title in the quadrennial worlds next June in Sweden, will open Chiquita play at 2 p.m. Sunday against Germany at George Mason University.

The question is: Will Staples, the only Maryland native currently on the squad, make this week's cut from 24 to 18 players?

Choosing his words carefully,U.S. coach Anson Dorrance said: "I'm pleased with Thori's progress the last few years. She's got to fight her way onto the team. She's the fastest player we've got.

"We've invested in her, keeping her over more experienced and technically and tactically sophisticated players in the belief it will reap dividends down the road. She matches up against the fastest strikers in the world."

At Joppatowne, Staples not only starred in soccer but in track, winning state long jump and 400- and 800-meter titles. She captured two heptathlon gold medals in the National Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympics.

No sooner did she become Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Year at N.C. State than Dorrance promoted her to the national team. She made her debut with the team last year against Denmark and has appeared in 16 games against international competition. Curry traveled to Pennsylvania to watch her against Germany.

"She marked Heidi Mohr, the best offensive player in the world behind Michelle Akers-Stahl of the U.S.," said Curry, who's in his 20th year of coaching with the Soccer Association of Columbia, the second-largest youth soccer program in Maryland (behind Montgomery) with 4,000 players. "She pretty well shut her down, to one goal, I think. Thori was the only one who could keep up with Heidi, who's not only fast but big and physical."

Shannon Bagrosky, about to enter UMBC, played for three years with Staples on the Crusaders. Her first impression of Staples was enduring.

"She had speed and strength," Bagrosky said. "She was a defender but was one of our best attackers. If it was 0-0 and we were having trouble scoring, coaches would move her up. She could dribble through anyone."

It was Staples' athleticism that caught Dorrance's eye five years ago when he came to Columbia to conduct a camp. That and the fact that she was black.

"Columbia is a hotbed for black soccer players," Dorrance said. "In the rest of the U.S., it's upper middle class whites. It's impressive to see young blacks competing here."

When Staples celebrated her 20th birthday in April, she was training with the U.S. team in Trinidad. She met the legendary Pele that day, thanks to teammate Akers-Stahl, who knew him and, at Staples' request, introduced them.

"It was hectic," Staples said. "He got an award at halftime, there were a bunch of people around him and he had a plane to catch. But it was great to meet him. He's everybody's hero."

The U.S. women hope to benefit from the recently completed World Cup, which drew large crowds and saw the U.S. men prosper.

"The men glorified the game we play, and we celebrate it, too," Dorrance said. "We're all growing together. Our world championship in 1991 did a lot for men's as well as women's soccer in the U.S. We're all on the same team."

As Dorrance prepares his team for the Chiquita, he suspects "there won't be an easy game" against Norway, China or Germany. After the Chiquita is the CONCACAF Qualifying Championship Aug. 13-21 in Montreal.

There the Americans will face Trinidad, Mexico, Jamaica and Canada. The top two finishers will qualify for the worlds in Sweden next year.

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