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PACKING A PUNCH

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Women’s World Cup is now a knockout competition--one loss and you’re out--but don’t mention that around Kate Sobrero.

The U.S. national team and former Notre Dame defender knows the feeling painfully well.

At training camp in San Diego early last year, Sobrero’s jaw met goalkeeper Tracy Ducar’s knee--with disastrous results.

“It was my first camp with the team [that year] and I wanted to make a good impression,” Sobrero recalled. “We were losing in practice and I wanted to win. I’d just scored a goal, so I was all excited and I tried to do it again.

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“The ball was played a little bit too far in front of me, but I thought I could get to it. So I slid and [Ducar] slid too, and her knee hit my jaw and broke it.

“She was screaming and crying bloody murder. Well, I hit her knee with full impact, so I totally understand that. But I was unconscious.”

While teammates and coaches rushed to care for Ducar, thinking she was badly hurt, they all but ignored Sobrero.

“All of a sudden, somebody looked at me and I was bleeding because I’d lost a tooth,” she said. “So I was bleeding from the gum and bleeding from the nose and they were like, ‘Oh, my God!’ And when I woke up Michelle [Akers] had blood all over her hands [from carrying Sobrero off the field] and I was so confused.

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“It was funny, because it was picture day and I’m like, ‘Oh, you don’t want my picture now?’ and my jaw’s like over here. They said, ‘No,’ and then after that they always used that cheesy Notre Dame one from when I was, like, 17. So I kind of wish I hadn’t broken my jaw.”

*

By now it will be apparent that Kathryn Michele Sobrero is not your average player. In fact, as many will attest, she’s not your average person.

On a U.S. team whose starting lineup of 11 features 10 players who have won a world championship, an Olympic gold medal or both, she is the odd one out. The very odd one.

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“I think she’s a little kooky,” said Michelle French, a teammate of Sobrero’s on the U.S. under-20 national team that won the Nordic Cup in Denmark in 1997. “She’s just funny, a little oblivious at times, but that’s what makes her fun to hang around with. She’s definitely her own person. She doesn’t get stressed out. She’s just like, whatever happens.”

And from U.S. co-captain Julie Foudy: “I like Kate a lot. I think she’s great. Besides being a great soccer player, she’s a total nut. She fits in perfectly. She’s just a goofball. Kate’s always giggling. She’s giddy. She should be blond, for sure.”

Sobrero, 22, has always been a little off the wall. Even her college coaches mention that.

“She’s very quirky,” said Carla Chin-Baker, the former Irish assistant coach who brought Sobrero to South Bend. “But that’s just Kate. One of the most endearing qualities about her, one that draws people to her, is that she is so quirky. She’s different than everybody. Unpredictable.”

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Former Notre Dame coach Chris Petrucelli, admits as much, but says his teams counted heavily on Sobrero, who helped lead the Irish to four consecutive final fours, and the national title in 1995.

“She’s a little bit of a loose cannon every once in a while,” Petrucelli said. “But we would never have had the kind of success we had without Kate. I mean, she was an extremely important part of our team. She could shut down anybody in the country. We won a national championship because Kate did a great job of marking [then University of Portland and now U.S. national team striker] Shannon MacMillan.”

*

“Sobs,” as she is nicknamed, discovered soccer on a stretch of lawn in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

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“I learned the game in my backyard with my brothers,” she said. “I have three older brothers who beat the crap out of me. They took no mercy on me. One of my brothers actually cracked my shin one time.”

Her brothers, Don, Tim and Jeff, were four to 11 years older but starting at 5 or 6, she was out there mixing it up with all of them.

“I wanted to be just like them,” she said. “I wanted to do whatever they were doing. I was such a tomboy. I just wanted to be like my brothers. And I was so upset for a while that I was a girl.”

A born athlete, Sobrero enjoyed track and tennis and loved volleyball. But soccer captured her heart. She played at Detroit Country Day, a prep school, and for the Michigan Hawks club.

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” I just liked it,” she said. “I think my parents stuck me in it because I was just really hyperactive as a kid. I mean, I was all over the place. It takes a lot of energy out of you. So, honestly, I played soccer just to run around. I didn’t know anything about tactics until I was in high school. I just played it because it was something to do and it was fun. I just had a really good time doing it.

“I was never a very good player. I was never the best player on any of my teams, but I just worked really, really hard.”

By the time Sobrero was in high school, she already had caught the eye of U.S. assistant coach Lauren Gregg, who also coaches the under-20 national team. Gregg saw a diamond in the rough and Sobrero was called to the national team camp four years ago at 18.

It proved almost as disastrous--not to mention embarrassing--as the later collision with Ducar.

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“I got called up in, like, February of my freshman year in college and I passed out the first day of fitness tests,” Sobrero said, dissolving into her trademark giggles. “I woke up, like, half an hour later. This was in Orlando. They were training for the ’95 World Cup. And I passed out.

“That was my first experience with the national team. The next time I was brought in was January of my senior year. You see the correlation?”

But U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco and his staff believed in Sobrero and she finally broke into the starting lineup in 1998.

And now she’s in the World Cup, getting ready for Thursday’s quarterfinal against Germany at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium in Landover, Md.

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So far, she has enjoyed a fine tournament, although there was that nerve-racking moment in front of 78,972 at Giants Stadium in the opening game against Denmark.

Sobrero had the ball at her feet, the Danish forwards were closing in on her, the crowd was yelling and she was trying desperately to hear goalkeeper Briana Scurry’s instructions.

“I couldn’t hear what she was trying to tell me,” Sobrero said. “Should I give it back or not give it back? I couldn’t tell by her hand gestures what she wanted me to do.

“So I’m like, ‘OK, corner kick. Please don’t score. Feel like an idiot. Please don’t score.’ That’s what I was praying for at that point.”

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She made the correct choice, yielded a corner kick and survived the crisis.

DiCicco prefers to recall a better moment from her World Cup debut.

“I thought she was awesome,” he said. “She saved us a couple of times.

“One time [Danish midfielder] Lene Jensen broke out [on a quick counterattack]--and I know that’s pretty exciting for their team. It’s like when Mia [Hamm] or Tiffeny [Milbrett] break out for us--and basically Kate had her one on one and trapped her against the touchline and she ended up running out of gas and kicking it out of bounds.

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“Kate saved us a couple of other times too. She’s playing outstandingly well and I hope she continues right through the World Cup.”

The forwards usually grab the glory, but Sobrero gets her kicks by denying them that chance.

“My biggest thrill is taking the ball away from somebody or slide-tackling,” she said. “I mean, scoring a goal, it doesn’t happen that often and it’s really cool and all, but my biggest joy is taking the ball away from somebody. Winning a ball in the air. I like that.

“It’s just more my mentality because I’m a really aggressive kind of person. Kind of out of control.”

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The other starters on defense--Joy Fawcett, Carla Overbeck and Brandi Chastain--know that. They each have played more than 100 times for the U.S., compared to 28 games for Sobrero, but they have absolute faith in her.

“This is by no means a knock on Kate,” said Chastain, “but sometimes she looks a little awkward doing things. But it’s incredible how she either recovers or she gets the job done and you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, how did that just happen?’ ”

Speed, athleticism and determination, that’s how. Oh, yes, and smarts.

“Obviously, she’s very intelligent,” said Foudy, a Stanford graduate. “She went to that other school.”

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Gregg has the final word.

“When she was 13 or 14, she was just this thin little kid and she was short and no one ever thought she could play,” Gregg said. “But she’s one of those kids who never really gave up and here she is.

“Hopefully, she stays in the game as a cornerstone to build our next team around. She’s a wonderful person, good for chemistry, coachable, positive, so it’s quite a success story.”

A knockout one, in fact.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

What She’s Saying

The players who line up alongside Kate Sobrero, right, in the U.S. team’s four-defender formation are all 1991 world champions and 1996 Olympic gold medalists, putting the rookie in intimidating company. Here is Sobrero’s take on each of them:

* Brandi Chastain: “Brandi’s ‘Hollywood,’ for sure. She’s flashy but in a good way. She’s very exciting to watch. She’s a little flamboyant. There’s something to her. She’s entertaining.”

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* Carla Overbeck: “She’s our leader back there. She’s the leader of the whole team. She’s a rock. She’s always calm and confident. You can always count on her.”

* Joy Fawcett: “Joy is just a workhorse. She’s kind of like the unsung hero. You never hear about her. But she’s one of the best defenders in the world. She’s just amazing. She never, ever, gets beaten. She’s always running up and down the sideline. She’s tireless.”


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