Shannon Higgins, a member of the 1991 Women’s World Cup championship team, retired from soccer following this inaugural women’s tournament. Her name hit the headlines as she assisted on both of Michelle Akers’s goals in the U.S. 2-1 victory over Norway in the championship game. Higgins also played for four NCAA championship teams under Anson Dorrance at the University of North Carolina from 1986-1989. In 1989, she won the Hermann Trophy.
Today, Shannon says that her playing days in some ways “seem very far away.” She has been the head women’s soccer coach at the University of Maryland for the past five years and spends most of her time with her family and working. Her husband, Sasha Cirovski, is also a head soccer coach at the University of Maryland for the men’s team. They have two small daughters who both play soccer as well near the family home in Columbia, Maryland. We caught up with Shannon to talk about her feelings about representing women’s soccer in the Hall of Fame, the growth of American soccer over the past few decades, and her own personal favorite moments from her coaching and playing days.
You are one of the few women to have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. How does this feel to represent professional women’s soccer in the Hall?
It seems like because I have a family and I’m working, actually being in soccer seems so long ago! But obviously I’m honored, and it’s great to be remembered this way. I knew we were doing something different when it happened. I knew it was a journey that hadn’t been done before—participating in the first women’s World Cup. I went through all of the firsts with this team, including the whole Hall of Fame induction. I just feel honored to be a part of the group.
Since becoming a coach, what more have you learned about the game? What does coaching teach you as opposed to playing?
I’m learning about how the game is evolving, from everything down to the new shinguards. I’ve learned a little more about how mental the game is, learned more about the mentality of becoming and staying a winner. Obviously there’s more to worry about behind the scenes. There’s more to it than X’s and O’s as a college coach—you deal with the academic and social lives of your players as well. Without a doubt, you have more sympathy for your own college coaches and the decisions that they had to make.
What have been the biggest changes in the soccer community throughout your playing and coaching days?
I think the biggest conflict in American soccer today is between playing and watching soccer. There’s so much going on with the playing end that there’s not as much time to watch. More people are enjoying playing than watching the game, even adults. But I think by starting to play you’ll increase the fan base. People want to go out and watch soccer instead of football. It’s starting to evolve. We’re a society accepting the game of soccer as part of us.
How do you think the youth soccer movement has evolved?
Small-sided soccer is the biggest change. My daughters play soccer and they started in 3 v 3 and went to 5 v 5 and now they’re in 7 v 7. I think small-sided soccer allows more touches on the ball. There aren’t three or four kids on the sidelines watching the ball. There are more touches and more quality control. Having more balls and more kids on the ball at practice is the best thing for youth soccer. Having kids wait in lines at practice is a thing of the past. Small-sided soccer has had an effect on the game. I go out and watch a lot of 16 and 17-year old girls play soccer, and now I think I can say that all of the players have gotten quite a bit better. I think that, tactically, young players, even up to 25, 26-years old, still have room to grow, but I think that the technical ability and athleticism have gone through the roof.
Can you talk about the impact that the 1991 World Cup win had on American soccer?
I think it gave everyone a feel of, ‘OK, the women have done it. There’s something here to build on.’ I remember coming back from China and there was a US Soccer function up in New England. Michelle Akers I went up for the event. At the banquet, I remember we got up on stage, and there was a standing ovation. I just thought, ‘Wow.’ I just didn’t know it was such a huge splash. Obviously the soccer community knew, we knew people knew about everything that had happened, but we didn’t know how excited they were.
How about the ups and down experienced by the WUSA? Do you see a future for the league?
I think that the league will find its seat. There’s a market out there, not a huge one, but if we approach it wisely, it can work. I think this time around, we did a bit of what the men did in the NASL (North American Soccer League) and we got too big for our britches. We can’t be in the RFK’s of the world, not yet. There is a market, and I know we’ll find it. We just have to hope that the sponsors are loyal. I have two daughters, and they have Mia Hamm shirts, and they have aspirations. When I was young, it was an on-paper national team. Now, there are young women that we can all see.
Was your top playing moment the 1991 World Cup?
That was the top moment. We had times that we played better as a team, but definitely, it was the top moment. The 1991 World Cup was phenomenal. The Chinese had bought into it, there were fans coming and watching the games, and it was fun to see the packed stadiums, which showed an interest in women’s soccer. We were seeing the future. It was a tremendous experience. We had been in China on four previous occasions, so we knew what to expect and we were prepared for the little things you deal with while traveling, the food and stuff like that. It was an amazing experience.
What soccer players and teams, past and present, do you most admire? Does anyone playing today take after you?
Let’s see. It’s so hard as a female. Obviously I admired all of my teammates. Anson always preached that the reason we had this team is that we had people good at different things. He always praised me for vision and tactical ability. When we worked on the speed drills, he was always quick to point out that I had a good brain (laughs). Just to keep me going! I think today, in the women’s game, we’ve moved away from a person in a tactical scheming role, which is what I did. I think Aly Wagner is closest to me in playing style of players today.