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U.S. women

Keller gets one-week trial in Orlando camp.

By Gary Davidson
Gannett News Service

U.S. soccer (Thursday, February 25, 1999) -- Forward Debbie Keller, who filed a controversial sexual harassment suit against the North Carolina coach last fall and has been absent from the U.S. women's full-time residency camp this year, will spend next week training with the team in Orlando, coach Tony DiCicco said today.

The announcement came a few days after she instituted a second legal action, seeking inclusion in the national team's training camp in Seminole County, Fla.

Some observers feel she has not been involved this year in preparations for this summer's FIFA Women's World Cup because of the $12 million sexual harassment law suit she filed with reserve goalkeeper Melissa Jennings against their college coach Anson Dorrance, who has led the powerhouse Tar Heels to 15 national championships in 18 years. With 10 current and former North Carolina players in the U.S. camp, most of whom signed a letter in defense of Dorrance, the potential for hard feelings may present a team chemistry problem.

Last week, Keller employed the powerful Washington law firm of Williams & Connolly to file for arbitration against the U.S. Soccer, the American governing body, seeking her inclusion in residency camp. "While they're training, I'm here in the snow," the 23-year-old was quoted by Newsweek magazine from Chicago where her harassment suit awaits trial. "I belong on that team . . . Soccer was such a good experience until this. I'm just disappointed. I don't want it to go on this way."

Keller was not available for comment Thursday.

Despite starting in only seven of her 23 appearances in 1998, she tied Tiffeny Milbrett for second on the team with 14 goals, and added two assists. The leader with 20 goals was Mia Hamm. In 46 career appearances, Keller has 18 goals and seven assists, placing her 10th all-time in goals.

"Debbie Keller's a very talented player," DiCicco said. "There's a lot of talented players that didn't get invited into residency. The reason she was not invited didn't have anything to do with chemistry. It's about where we think she is with her game, where we think it will be down the road. And it's one of those difficult decisions.

"We haven't given up on Debbie. She's in our (player) pool. If she can help us win the World Cup, she will be on the team. But she had 45 caps, and she hadn't established herself as a starter. At that point we have to look at what about (giving) a Danielle Fotopoulos or some of these other younger players this same opportunity. Will they in fact become a starter and a key player on the team. No knock against Debbie because she's a very good player."

Keller's chances are hurt due to her lack of versatility, the awesome strength of the U.S. front-line forwards, and DiCicco's desire to have the final three or four roster berths open for young players not expected to play. But the final squad size now is 20, and FIFA may enlarge it to 22. One starter, midfielder Michelle Akers already is out 4-6 weeks with three broken bones in her cheek.

The team leaves March 10 for the Algarve Cup, a major international competition in Portugal, and DiCicco said he has not ruled out Keller's participation in that trip. He said he disagrees with those who say her presence in camp would create animosity.

"There are a lot of players on the team who are close to Debbie, too," DiCicco said. "This is a group of professional athletes who want to win and know where their priorities are in training . . . so I don't believe there's this thick air hanging over the team when she's around. We're focused on playing soccer and winning games. . . There's always a chance if there's a player we feel we need to have to perform at our utmost. I'm in the business of trying to win games, and whatever is best for this team, we're going to do."

Lou Varchetto, who filed the harassment suit, said he was glad to see Keller invited to camp, but would withhold judgment since his firm was not handling the arbitration. "She is very popular," he said. "I'm sure there are hard feelings, but she played with everybody that's in camp now into the fall last year. Aside from the fact that there seemed to be some strained relationships off the field, I had the feeling she was very comfortable playing with everybody. She's got friends, and she's got people who aren't friends, but that's the same on all teams.

"Every championship team has intangible qualities, and some of those intangible qualities are courage and leadership and enthusiasm that goes beyond when to pass and when to shoot. There are players who are winners ... and Debbie has those qualities."

Dave Butswinkas, handling the case for Williams & Connolly, was traveling Thursday and did not return a phone call.

Gary Davidson is managing editor of SoccerTimes and can be e-mailed at info@soccertimes.com.

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