April Heinrichs is looking for players with a passion for the game. As the new Head Coach of the U.S. Under-16 National Women's team, she lists that passion - the love of the game - as one of the characteristics she is seeking in players for the U-16 squad. More specifically, she is looking at players born no later than 1980 who show that devotion to the game along with high technical skills, competitiveness, a strong work ethic, motivation to train on their own, intensity, and a mentality that can focus on the game. It sounds like a lot to ask for in a young player, but Coach Heinrichs should know these characteristics well. Always modest about her own soccer achievements, she could be describing herself as a player when she lists these qualities.
Heinrichs seems to have always been focussed on soccer. Now that she has retired from National Level play, her enthusiasm as a coach and continued love of the game is obvious as she discusses her new role as under-16 coach. She makes clear that her goal is to select players with potential for National Team play, and to prepare them for the additional demands and the personal commitment needed to reach the National Level. Her own route to the top of women's soccer shows how hard work, motivation and focus can propel a talented player into a stellar soccer career.
When she was around seven her parents dropped her off to play at a park in Littleton, Colorado, where she joined other children who were kicking a soccer ball. That year she began playing recreational soccer on an organized team, and stuck with it. She was fascinated with the concept of moving the ball without using the hands. During this time, she had the good fortune of running into several coaches who kept her challenged to improve her game. As her game improved, her interest grew. In junior high and high school, she kept her focus on the game. In her teens, she always played up an age group, which she believes helped her develop the skills needed for college level soccer and to get on the National Team.
She credits her parents as always being supportive - encouraging her play, making sure she got to practices and games and helping out with the money needed to continue in soccer. Though they were never pushy and were not over involved with her game, she always knew that they were supporting her, not meeting some need of their own through her achievements in the sport.
She attended the University of North Carolina (UNC) where she helped lead the Women's Team coached by Anson Dorrance to four consecutive NCAA championship game appearances and NCAA titles in 1983, 1984, and 1986. She was named National Player of the Year for NCAA Women's Soccer in 1984 and 1986. By the time she graduated in 1986 with a degree in television and film, she had accrued 87 goals and 51 assists (a record which has since been surpassed only by Mia Hamm) and the team had an amazing 85-3-2 record for the four years she was there.
By 1985, when the U.S. Women's National Team first traveled abroad to play international matches, she was already a much talked about phenomenon of women's soccer - the first American superstar of the sport. However, she missed the national team selection at the Olympic Sports Festival in Baton Rouge that summer due to injury, and was unable to travel with the team to their first international appearance in Jesolo, Italy.
By the summer of 1996 she was back in form, and traveled with the U.S. Team to Jesolo for Italy's second "Mondialito," sharing captain's duties with Emily Pickering and proving herself to be one of the most determined and psychologically tough players in the tournament. She was a spunky player who never gave up on a play and refused to be intimidated by the "professional" tricks and fouls of some of the more experienced players. Her focus and determination were such that she seemed to be everywhere she was needed - whenever there was a problem, April's number 2 jersey could be spotted in the middle of the action.
Although the U.S. lost to Italy in the final game of that tournament (which was televised live in Italy) April enjoyed the banquet that night, while two of the Italian players who had tried to intimidate her showed up on crutches. Her tenacious play caught the attention of the Italian league owners, who pursued her to the team hotel to negotiate for her to play with one of their professional teams. She and U.S. National teammate Megan McCarthy were among the first U.S. women to play a season in the Italian professional league.
The trip to the Mondialito gave a glimpse of things to come for women's soccer, but was amazing at the time - crowds gathered to cheer the team as they entered the stadium, bleachers were filled with spectators, and the team members were besieged by eager fans wanting autographs. All of this seems standard now, but was unheard of for women's soccer at that time. It was the first time that Heinrichs remembers being asked for her autograph.
Emerging early as a leader of the team, April was a solid player, rallied her teammates when things seemed to be falling apart, always was there to follow up on a loose ball (either to score or to clear). Sometimes to a spectator it seemed her determination alone took her to a higher level of play where she willed herself to get possession of the ball, then took it in to score. Her enjoyment of the game showed through her hard work, making her a favorite of fans in appearances with the National Team in the U.S. and abroad.
Heinrichs was an essential leader and scorer for the U.S. Team as they headed to the China Cup competition in 1988. When the team arrived in China, she received a message that her father was ill and she had to immediately return to the U.S. Early in the tournament, Michelle Akers received a serious concussion and was out for the remainder of the games. Although the team went on to a 4-0-2 record in the tournament, with goals from Carin Jennings (Gabarra), the loss of Heinrichs' leadership and scoring, as well as Akers' presence on the field, probably kept them from winning the championship.
In China in 1991, Heinrichs showed leadership off as well as on the field. At the Thanksgiving dinner for the team and their families, she was team spokesperson and MC, thanking families for their support. Her leadership and focussed play, along with the scoring of Akers and Jennings, were noted as the "triple edged sword" of the U.S. Team, as they went on to win the first ever Women's World Championship. As a U.S. National Women's Team player, April was named U.S. Soccer Federation player of the year in 1986 and 1989, and was voted "Female Player of the 1980's" by Soccer America Magazine. By the time she retired from the National Team in 1992, she had tallied 38 goals in 47 national appearances.
As a coach, Heinrichs has been involved with regional programs and youth development since 1986. After graduating college, she served as assistant women's soccer coach at William and Mary, then as women's soccer coach at Princeton University. From 1991-1996 she was head women's soccer coach at the University of Maryland, and this fall started as head women's soccer coach for the University of Virginia. In addition to her college duties, she became a full-time assistant coach to the U.S. Women's National team in January 1995, traveling with the team to the second Women's World Championship in Sweden that summer. She was with the U.S. Team last summer when they won the first Olympic Gold Medal in Women's Soccer, leaving her assistant coaching position afterwards to assume the U-16 Head Coach position.
For parents of young women who are interested in soccer, April stresses that it is a wonderful sport which enhances self-esteem, camaraderie and teamwork. Her advice to parents is to play a strongly supportive role, but to let the motivation come from the player, not the parent. She advises teens to play as much as possible, and to keep their focus on the game. For outstanding players over 14, she thinks that playing up an age group may offer a better challenge and hone skills. In general, she has noticed that young players increasingly are showing more technical sophistication. With that higher level of skill and the training and development they will receive under Coach Heinrichs' direction, the future should be bright for the U.S. Women's program.
Plans for the U-16 squad include a national camp which will be held in March 1997, exact date and location soon to be announced by U.S. Soccer. There are no games or demonstrations now scheduled for the U-16 Team. The WSW Internet Edition (www.womensoccer.com) will post details as soon as they are available.