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"She's the best women's soccer player in the world'

Former Dallas Cowboys kicking coach Ben Agajanian watched in amazement four years ago as a football sailed through the uprights, good from 52 yards.

He has seen plenty of field goals from that distance, but never one off the foot of a woman.

"She did shock me," Agajanian recalled. "I told her if she really worked on her technique and accuracy for a year, she would honestly have a strong shot at kicking for an NFL team. I really believe that."

It was a tempting opportunity. But that woman, soccer star Michelle Akers-Stahl, had a more important goal in mind.

"I told him I didn't have time to do that," she said. "I wanted to win a World Cup."

In December, in front of a crowd of 65,000 in Tianhe Stadium in Guangzhou, China, Akers-Stahl got her wish. The four-time All-American from the University of Central Florida scored both goals in the United States' 2-1 victory over Norway in the World Cup final.

The U.S. men's team never has accomplished that feat. The women's team did it in the first World Cup competition for women.

"It's scary to realize what we accomplished," Akers-Stahl, 26, said Saturday night before playing in an exhibition game in Tampa.

About 150 people were on hand to watch the Orlando Lions, a senior women's team, post a 4-1 victory over the Town & Country Heather, an under-17 girls team.

"I still can't believe she's here, playing against my team," said Tony Fusco, coach of Town & Country. "She's the best women's soccer player in the world. This would be like Magic Johnson playing against a local high school boys all-star team."

Few would argue that Akers-Stahl is the top women's player, especially after her performance in the World Cup tournament, in which the United States went 6-0. Akers-Stahl, who combines polished technique, smarts and power with a "do whatever it takes to win" mentality, scored 10 of the United States' 25 goals.

Playing with a sprained right ankle, a painful hip pointer and an inflamed knee, Akers-Stahl scored her first goal against Norway on a header. She scored the World Cup winner with three minutes left in regulation.

"I can only describe it because I saw it on film," Akers-Stahl said. "It all happened so fast."

Norway defender Tina Svensson tried to make a pass back to her goalkeeper, but Akers-Stahl ran into her and got a piece of the ball. Then Akers-Stahl pounced on the ball and scored the most important goal in women's soccer with her sprained right ankle.

"She's fantastic," Pele told Sports Illustrated after the United States' 5-2 semifinal win over Germany. "I like her because she is intelligent, has presence of mind and is often in the right position."

Pele, regarded as the best men's soccer player ever, is more than just an admirer of Akers-Stahl. He's also a good friend. He gave her the last shirt he wore with the New York Cosmos and signed it, "With love, Pele."

Akers-Stahl and the rest of her United States teammates are much revered in the soccer world. In China, they were followed by large crowds of admiring fans everywhere they went.

But in the United States, they get about as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield. They get even less recognition. The World Cup title game barely was mentioned in most U.S. sports pages and sportscasts.

Akers-Stahl had trouble getting recognition in her own hometown. When she returned from China to Orlando (she lives in Oviedo), the only people who greeted her at the airport were friends.

"I called every area newspaper, TV station, radio station and magazine I could think of to tell them about Michelle's arrival from China. Count them, zero came," said Rodger Itkor, who serves for free as Akers-Stahl's business manager. "That's not right for what she and her teammates accomplished."

But it is reality.

And with the lack of recognition comes the lack of endorsements.

"I know if I was male, I'd be a millionaire," Akers-Stahl said while sitting on the grass outside the Shimberg Baseball Complex in Tampa.

But she isn't bitter. She understands she's a female athlete playing soccer, a sport that has limited commercial appeal in the United States.

However, times are beginning to change. Akers-Stahl became the first woman soccer player to sign an endorsement contract, with Umbro USA, a manufacturer of soccer equipment and apparel. Every other company she approached turned her down.

"It's a start," said New Hampshire-based marketing representative Dot Sheehan, who took Akers-Stahl as a client six months ago. "But it's still frustrating because it's not nearly the amount of money a man would sign for."

It's also frustrating, Sheehan said, because Akers-Stahl has what companies are looking for in a spokesperson: accomplishment, good looks, believability and charisma.

Sheehan, who represents professional male sports stars, including the Boston Celtics' Robert Parish and Reggie Lewis, said she has been trying to get endorsements for Akers-Stahl in companies that don't specialize in soccer-related products like Cosmair Inc. (L'Oreal hair care and cosmetic products) and the Walt Disney Company.

"I'm looking for companies that want good role models and nobody is a better role model than Michelle," Sheehan said. "But a lot of the problem is that men are making the decisions. And when the choice comes down to a male athlete or a female, they feel more comfortable with the male."

Although she's not a millionaire, Akers-Stahl has been able to survive on her income from soccer (she and 17 teammates split $50,000 for winning the World Cup _ $2,777.77 each). In addition to her contract with Umbro, she will earn what she called "a nice" salary playing for a team in Sweden this April. She also has plans to do a series of interviews for M&Ms, with the emphasis being that one can be a healthy athlete and still indulge in sweets occasionally.

"I love chocolate," she said.

She also helps her husband, Robbie Stahl, run Post-to-Post Soccer Training Centers. Michelle and Robbie met after she applied for a summer at Post-to-Post. Seven weeks into the job, Robbie proposed.

Akers-Stahl said she never expected the proposal. She also said she never envisioned the success soccer would bring her.

She started the sport at age 8, in Santa Clara, Calif., because of her mother's encouragement.

She played goalie because she was the "bravest." But her team lost every game and she cried after every loss.

Her family moved to Seattle. It was a tough transition at first.

"I was the teen-ager from hell," Akers-Stahl said. "My hormones were going crazy. I was a real rebel, skipped school and things like that."

But she grew out of it by playing two sports year round. The 5-foot-10, 150-pounder was a natural at every sport she tried, but soccer was her love. After living in rainy Seattle, she decided on sunny Orlando for college.

As part of a challenge, Akers-Stahl tried out for the Orlando Lions, a semi-pro men's team. She lasted until the final cut.

But all along her goal had been to win the World Cup. She said she would like to play at least four more years and bring another World Cup title back to the United States. Maybe even an Olympic medal. She is working to help make women's soccer an Olympic sport for the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.

Sheehan said she wouldn't be begging for endorsements for Akers-Stahl had she wound up a mediocre placekicker in the NFL instead of the best women's soccer player in the world.

But Itkor, Akers-Stahl's friend and business manager, said she wouldn't have had it any other way.

"All Michelle really cares about is helping women's soccer grow," he said. "She had no idol when she was growing up. But now she can be a positive role model for thousands of young soccer players out there. That's worth a lot to her."