IT WAS EERIE. FOR TWO WEEKS PRIOR to an exhibition game with the Chinese national team last month, Michelle Akers-Stahl had a recurring dream. The U.S. soccer star was booming long, powerful kicks calculated to bend around defenders and rip into the upper corner of the net.
“I kept waking up,” she says. “I’d grab my husband, Roby, and say, ‘I’ve been dreaming I was kicking again.’ ” Roby, a professional coach who doubles as her shooting instructor, would drowsily answer that he was glad to hear it.
“No,” Michelle would say. “You don’t understand—I was missing!”
Michelle Akers-Stahl missing a 25-yard free kick? Not likely. Ask the Chinese. On Oct. 12 she buried just such a shot against them en route to a 2-0 exhibition victory. The win confirmed the U.S. national team as a favorite at the first Women’s World Championship, which is being played Nov. 16—30 in China. It also fed a growing consensus that Akers-Stahl, 25, Mish to her friends, is, in the words of U.S. coach Anson Dorrance, “the best female soccer player in the world—no question about it.”
In a country where 6 million kids—more than 40 percent of them girls—play in organized soccer leagues, Akers-Stahl may be in danger of becoming a ’90s-style cultural icon: a 5’10” dynamo with charisma and work ethic in equal measure. During her past three years with the U.S. team—where she and her teammates are paid a measley $10 per diem plus room and board—Michelle has racked up a phenomenal 39 goals in 41 international games and has twice been named soccer’s Female Athlete of the Year.
But statistics hardly begin to explain what Akers-Stahl brings to a game. “The reason she is so feared all over the world,” says Dorrance, “is that she has so many dimensions to her game. She is a nightmare matchup for a defender.”
Akers-Stahl credits her grit under pressure to her mother, Anne, who showed similar mettle as a fire fighter and ambulance driver in the Seattle suburbs where Michelle was reared. “My mom was a pioneer,” she says. “She’s a spirited lady.” Michelle’s interest in soccer took wing in 1976 when she turned 10. “I played mostly with the boys,” she says, “and it was tomboy soccer—skinned knees and getting in fights.”
Her father, Robert, a supermarket meat-department manager, was divorced from her mother when Michelle turned 13. “It wasn’t a friendly split,” says Michelle, “but afterwards they got more involved in my sports. They wanted Michael [Michelle’s brother, now 23] and me to be sure we knew they loved us.”
While attending Seattle’s Shore-crest High School, Michelle was named an all-American three times, and she went on to star for the University of Central Florida, which she attended on an athletic scholarship. She married former soccer pro Roby Stahl, now 39, in April 1990, shortly after signing up for his shooting camp near Orlando. “It was a marriage made in national coach’s heaven,” says Dorrance.
When Michelle is not on the soccer field, she can be found stretched out on the sofa of their two-story house in Oviedo, Fla., reading Stephen King novels or dreaming of another of her loves, scuba diving. Occasionally she begrudges the demands of her sport. “I feel sometimes I’m missing out,” she says. “But I know in the future I’m going to be able to do all the things I want.” One of them is having kids. “Roby’s been bugging me,” she says with a laugh. “He wants eight. But I told him we’re going to take them one at a time.”
Just now Michelle’s thoughts are on the world championships, where the U.S. team will display its version of the full-court press. “The nature of the American personality is to be very aggressive,” says Dorrance. “We don’t have the subtle sophistication the Europeans have. We’re very impatient. We go right after things—that’s what intimidates other teams when they play us.”
Akers-Stahl seems indomitable whatever the context. In 1988 she was invited by the Dallas Cowboys for a one-day tryout as a kicking specialist. “All these Cowboy fans came around, and they were just acting like idiots,” she says. “Their attitude was, ‘You should still be in the kitchen baking cookies.’ ”
Although Michelle declined the Cowboys’ invitation to train with the team, she answered on that occasion with her foot: She split the uprights with a 52-yard field goal.
TOM NUGENT in Fairfax