By Michael Lewis Special to Newsday Updated March 30, 2019 7:16 PM
When reminiscing about her early soccer-playing days on Long Island, Shannon MacMillan doesn’t remember how many goals she scored or wins, it’s usually about how much fun she had with the Huntington Boys Club Lucky Stars.
“They were the ones that let us play,” she said. “They weren’t the joy-stick coaches [who try to control the players]. They just loved the game and wanted us to enjoy it. They were the first coaches to foster the true love of the game, going out and having fun.”
The former U.S. national team standout had some fun in another way.
“She was so exciting to watch,” HBC coach Shelley Berger said years ago. “You never knew when Shannon was going to score. When we needed a goal, she would pull it out.”
Born in Syosset, MacMillan lived on Long Island until she was four, when her family moved to California. She returned in the fifth grade, residing in Smithtown through the seventh grade from 1985-88. Then the family went back to California.
“I’ve got nothing but happy memories of Shelley, playing with them. That’s what we need more of,” MacMillan said. “We’re trying to create these little professionals. When you’re that young, you need to enjoy the game and be excited that you’re out with your friends.”
Taking that philosophy with her, MacMillan left her position as UCLA assistant coach to make an impact as club director of the Del Mar Carmel Valley Sharks, a youth soccer club in San Diego. One of a few women who are club directors, MacMillan, 44, remembered how the sport changed her after she was “a very shy and timid person in high school.”
“I didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself,” said McMillan, who credited her University of Portland coach Clive Charles. “He taught me life lessons the game can offer, from the teamwork to overcoming adversity to leadership. Knowing that helped afford an amazing career with the women’s team. It was important for me to give back. If I can have at least half the impact that Clive had on me on a couple of young girls or boys, I would have done a really important thing.”
In Manhattan on Friday, MacMillan was reunited with teammates from the legendary team that won the 1999 Women’s World Cup — Michelle Akers, Brandi Chastain, Kristine Lilly, Kate Markgraf and Briana Scurry — for a panel discussion at the unveiling of the Women’s International Champions Cup tournament in Cary, North Carolina, Aug. 15-18.
As the first Long Island woman to make an international impact, McMillan opened the door for Harborfields standout Sara Whalen, and Northport’s Allie Long and Rockville Centre’s Crystal Dunn, who are vying for Women’s World Cup roster spots this summer.
She forged a 13-year international career, scoring 60 goals in 176 games, and was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame. MacMillan almost didn’t make it to the 1996 Olympics after a scintillating college career, winning the Hermann Trophy, soccer’s version of the Heisman.
“A lot of people don’t know it, but I didn’t make the training roster in January,” she said. “At the time I thought I was playing my best soccer.”
MacMillan said she returned to Portland “devastated because we didn’t have any leagues. I wasn’t quite ready to give up soccer.”
Charles offered some sage advice. “Clive said, ‘I’m going to give you 24 hours to feel sorry for yourself. Then you’re going to get back out there.’ I looked at him like he was crazy, because I’m like, how? ‘Because you’re going to have an opportunity and the difference is that you are going to be prepared.’ “
Opportunity knocked when veterans held out due to a financial dispute. MacMillan was invited back, finding herself in a difficult place.
“I supported the team and want them to get fair treatment, but here’s my opportunity,” said MacMillan, who called captain Julie Foudy to ask, “’What do I do? If you tell me not to go, I won’t go.’ Foudy, being the ultimate leader, said, ‘Mac, you need to be in this camp. You get your butt down there. Show them why you should be there.’”
The rest was Olympic history in the first women’s tournament. MacMillan scored the extra-time semifinal winner against Norway and tallied the opening goal vs. China to win the gold.
“I don’t take away from my teammates on what that Olympics meant,” said MacMillan, recording a team-high three goals. “It meant a little bit more because my road was probably twice as hard as most. I grew up dreaming about playing in the Olympics long before women’s soccer was an Olympic sport.”
On a team that dominated with exceptional players, MacMillan didn’t play much in 1999. Her biggest contribution was a corner kick that led to Joy Fawcett’s game-winner in the quarterfinal triumph over Germany.
MacMillan, who liked the Americans’ chances of winning the Women’s World Cup in France this summer, sometimes wished she could still play, given the growth of the sport.
“It’s really exciting in the sense of jealousy as well,” she said. “The opportunity that so much is out there for these young girls to dream and to go play for Man City or the Portland Thorns. We just played because we loved it. This opens numerous doors.”
Two decades ago, MacMillan and her teammates opened some doors as she still is trying today.
By Michael Lewis Special to Newsday