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A late selection for the World Cup, Whalen proves she belongs.

By Gary Davidson
SoccerTimes

FAIRFAX, Va. (Tuesday, June 29, 1999) -- Defender Sara Whalen doesn't carry illusion of being a starter for the United States in the FIFA Women's World Cup. A couple months ago, she didn't know if she would even make the squad.

But she represents the future for the Americans, who still start seven members of the 1991 world championship team.

She was given the opportunity to play 90 minutes Sunday when coach Tony DiCicco decided to rest some regulars against North Korea, and the University of Connecticut alumnus responded with a particularly impressive performance in the 3-0 victory.

"It was awesome," Whalen said. "It took me a long time to get the jitters out, but for the most part, it was just nervous excitement. I had a blast. I had a very solid game, definitely. There's definitely things I'm going to take out of this to work on.

"I haven't played 90 minutes in a long time, so it will be good for me to evaluate a lot of the things I did well or the things I did wrong. I didn't get forward as much as I wanted to. Maybe that had to do with Korea's defense, but who knows? Maybe it just had to do with me saving myself. But I was happy, I felt successful after the game."

Whalen, 23, essentially got the start because there was no need to test roommate Kate Sobrero's sprained ankle. DiCicco said today that Sobrero would be back in the starting lineup against Germany in Thursday's quarterfinal.

"I think for the most part, (the four reserves who started) felt the same," Whalen said. "We knew we were coming in to give people a rest and get the job done, and that's what we did. But for the rest of the World Cup, we're all going to go back to the same mentality: we're going to do what we can to win. We play 10 minutes, 20 minutes or no minutes. Now that we played 90 minutes, we have the confidence that we can make a difference."

What Whalen's performance accomplished was create a comfort level for DiCicco to use her in a key situation whether it be as a substitute or a starter in case of injury.

"I think it's great that she's been able to come in when the team needs her most and the level doesn't go down when she's in," veteran defender Joy Fawcett said. "We were confident in her abilities to be able to track the (opposing) players and all the speedy players on Korea. She was out there and she showed Tony what she can do. He shouldn't have any qualms about putting her in in the future."

DiCicco said he was unsure until the last minute whether to include Whalen on the 20-member team, though he increasingly caught glimpses of her abilities that convinced him she had a bright international future. "Sara is a good story because she was one of the last players picked, but even then she was coming on and doing some things we really liked," he said. Every player is in an upflow or a downflow, and Sara's been in an upflow. She went in, she's played in two of the three games. She started the last game (after playing 45 minutes against Nigeria).

"She's got some international qualities that the rest of the world is going to have to deal with . . . She's got some things to learn on the defensive side. She makes up for some of her lack of sophistication with her athleticism."

Whalen is just happy to be part of the World Cup experience. "It's an incredible jump for me," the native of Greenlawn, N.Y., said. "I can't say that I understand it or why that happened or what is going on.

"Once I did make the team, I felt a lot less pressure on me and was able to play a little more relaxed. Tony obviously has a lot of confidence in me right now. Maybe I'm peaking right now -- no better time than now to play your best, I guess. It's a big difference from a month ago, definitely."

The players have nicknamed her "Lia" for "Long Island Attitude," which was particularly evident on a retaliation foul against North Korea. "She's hard," DiCicco said. ``She's not dirty, for sure, but she's hard."

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

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