Ten Questions with Michelle Akers

MLSinSeattle.com Insider Frank MacDonald catches up with US Soccer legend Michelle Akers.

Her horses have been brushed and fed, her young son’s down for a midday nap and now Michelle Akers is using her remaining 20 minutes of free time to answer a few questions from her home near Orlando. After all, enquiring minds want to know what’s up with the most honored player in women’s soccer history. Since retiring in 2000, Akers has been named to Pele’s list of the top 125 living players, FIFA co-player of the century and inducted into the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame.

For those who last remember seeing you at the ’99 World Cup Final, could you fill-in what’s happened the last eight years?
Coming out of that World Cup, I needed a couple surgeries, to fix my shoulder and my knee. I got married. I had a son, Cody, in April of ’05. I’ve got five horses–one’s a rescue–and recently I started a horse rescue organization. I am training and writing natural horsemanship stuff. That’s my life, right there. Horses and family; every day, all the time. I only wish there were more hours in the day because I love hat I’m doing and want to do more.

OK, let’s talk horses. How did you start this rescue organization?
It’s here in Central Florida, and it started with one horse near my home. Over about 4-5 years I had called animal control because this horse was not looking good. The horse ended up getting turned over to the authorities and we fostered it. We decided to start a horse rescue called Heartland Horse Rescue. We’re fundraising right now because these horses require a lot of time and work to get them out of the hole they’re in. It’s a constant thing taking care of the rescues, plus I have four of my own. I’m also getting ready for another rehab program that uses horses for people with disabilities. All that horsey stuff, then trying to ride now and again.

Describe your connection to the game now?
It’s close to zero. I help out as a volunteer assistant at the University of Central Florida (her alma mater) when I can. But when I picked up Zoe, the rescue horse, I pretty much lost any spare time I’d had. I have a Florida high school girls tournament in Orlando every year. I help out with that and charity stuff, for people and horses. I did watch the World Cup, but that’s about it. I’m trying to be obscure and move into the world unnoticed, and I pretty much am unknown in the horse world. The soccer world keeps trying to pull me back in, but I don’t have much time, or room in my brain to do much else right now.

Who do you stay in touch with?
I keep in touch with a few players from the past teams and Lil–Kristine Lilley, old woman that she is and still playing. They had an event up in the Northeast, an awards, thing, but I couldn’t go because I had too much going on. The rest of them see each other a lot more than what I’m able to keep up with.

Do you see yourself—your style of play–in any of the current players?
I see a little in Abby Wambach, in her physical recklessness; smashing into people and winning balls in the box, winning balls in the air. To be honest, I see it as a very different team now, with a lot of different players than the teams I played for in my career. It’s kind of a different stamp on the game.

Take us back to your formative days as a player, when there probably few opportunities for girls?
Generally, there were restricted opportunities. But really, I never felt restricted at all. I never felt like I wanted to do something but couldn’t. I just played where I wanted to. I played in a league, and I played with boys all the time. I constantly felt challenged and coached well, with committed people around me who loved the game. I never felt like I lost out on things as a girl. At least not until the national team days, when you looked across at the men’s team. We would staying in a farmhouse and they at the Ritz-Carlton. That’s when I began noticing huge differences that were quite unfair. But as a little girl I had everything I could have asked for and more.

Of all the memories, which stands out from your days as a player?
There’s a lot, so it’s hard to pick one. I’d have to say it would be ’99, when I was basically taken off the field in the 90th minute of that (World Cup) final game and then came back out after the team had won. They were doing a victory lap and I couldn’t run; I was out of my mind and half-dead. I stood in middle of field with our team doc and one of my buddies. Then I heard people start chanting my name. Knowing it was my last game, with that kind of feedback, and coming off the field to our family. It was a great cap, a great way to go through a tough tournament, a tough game and, really, a tough career.

Who were your idols as you were learning the game?
I went to Sounders games and my favorite player was Dave Gillett. I just remember liking him because he tackled people really hard. He was great in the air and very good looking. I wore his number (17) through high school, and I would’ve worn it on the national team but someone already had it so I had to take No. 10.

What’s your reaction to MLS coming to Seattle and it’s potential impact?
I’m pumped because it’s about time. I’ve always thought Seattle is a no-brainer market. It should have been there 10 years ago. I know the Sounders had an effect on me because I assumed I would be doing that one day. It didn’t occur to me that I was watching men’s soccer. I just assumed I would play on the Sounders someday. Now, I expect it would have that same effect. By having a presence it keeps that idea in kids’ brains as they grow up. These little soccer players get a chance to see professional soccer. And like when the Sounders retired and the team disbanded, those players went into our community and became great coaches and are still impacting our kids. So I would think it can only do great things for all those young players.

When you come home, do people still recognize you?
I’m still surprised when people recognize me. I still get that recognition but I’m so oblivious most of the time. We’re coming to Seattle like we do for Christmas every year. It’s extra special now because we’re getting ready for Santa’s visit to our 2 1/2-year-old. That’s very fun. It’s nice having down time, and hanging out with grandpa and grandma. I love it there. I love coming home.