Dec. 9, 2000
By Pete LaFleur
On a day reserved for recognizing the nation's top college football player, another presentation was held this morning in Charlotte, N.C., honoring the top women's soccer player and top men's soccer player for the recently-completed 2000 season.
Notre Dame senior midfielder Anne Makinen put the finishing touches on her stellar career by accepting the prestigious Hermann Trophy, college soccer's equivalent of the higher-profile Heisman Trophy.
The native of Helsinki, Finland, becomes Notre Dame's second Hermann Trophy recipient (North Carolina is the only other school with multiple winners), following in the footsteps of the player she replaced in the Irish lineup, 1996 recipient Cindy Daws.
Makinen proved to be a rarity in the world of college soccer, due to wide-reaching skills that impact the casual observer just as greatly as they affect the most diehard soccer aficionado.
"My first impression of Anne hasn't changed: she is bar-none the best all-around soccer player in the country," says second-year Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum, who may pick up a major award of his own in coming weeks, as a top candidate for national coach of the year.
"I'm saying that as someone who has coached with the national program and at the international level, not just because I'm the coach of Notre Dame."
When Makinen runs onto a pass and one-times a 20-yard, laser shot that clangs off the upper corner of the goalmouth, the oohs and aahs reverberate throughout the stands. The same can be said any time she takes a seemingly routine free kick: it produces instant appreciation from even the most uneducated soccer observer.
"Anne simply can do things that no other player on this level can do," says Waldrum. "When she bends a free kick around the wall, we're talking about a very high level of skill there."
But the true measure of Makinen's greatness lies in the more subtle aspects of her game, ones that can sweep past the consciousness of a less-interested or easily-distracted observer.
"Anne is a typical European player, in that she knows how to use her body to get position and create space," explains Waldrum. "Right now in the U.S., there is not established pro soccer where young kids can learn the subtleties. We saw that during our preseason trip to Brazil. Their players weren't as athletic as ours, but they were so much more soccer-savvy and sophisticated.
"Anne was brought up in that type of environment and she simply sees the game on a different level. It's like putting a pro player into the college game. She has the ability, knowledge and sophistication to excel like no other player in the college game today."
Waldrum remembers one particular goal that illustrated Makinen's unique ability, in a game during the 1999 season at upstart Seton Hall. With the Irish clinging to a 3-2 lead in the final 15 minutes, Makinen instinctively began her run from midfield while freshman Nancy Mikacenic brought the ball down the right flank. With the defense preoccupied by the potent Irish forwards, Makinen correctly anticipated how the ball was going to settle into the penalty-box area, as Mikacenic lofted a lead pass from just past the midfield line.
"All of a sudden, Anne burst into the open, leapt into the air and volleyed the ball from 15 yards out over their 'keeper's head," says Waldrum. "It was a classic example of her skills coming together for a very memorable goal."
Another dimension to Makinen's impact on the field is seen in the elevated play by her teammates, as the presence of the all-star midfielder has transformed the Notre Dame program.
"Making others better is the sign of a truly great player and that's what Anne has done for our team," says Irish forward Meotis Erikson, who combined with Makinen on 20 different goals during their four seasons as classmates.
"There are so many things she does that you have to admire. Her mental approach, how she reads the game, how she can send a thru-ball and put it exactly where you want it. She excels at all the details, with such exactness. We wouldn't be a winning program without those things."
The duality in Makinen's game is matched by the camouflaged depth to her personality. On one hand, her flat-out skills are paralleled by a quiet sense of purpose off the field that often is interpreted as shyness or aloofness. But just like the subtle parts of her game, Makinen also has a hidden dimension that rounds out her personality. She truly is an individual who adeptly picks her spots, both on and off the field.
"Once you get to know Anne, you see what a dry sense of humor she has," says Waldrum. "And when she does say something in terms of how the team is performing, it's always pretty powerful and usually very blunt."
Erikson likewise has gained an appreciation for the depth of Makinen's character. "Most people in class think that she's shy, but if you get her alone where she feels more in control, she can make you laugh. And when she says something, it's just hysterical," says Erikson.
Makinen's crazy side came out during a late-season practice, just days before the challenging NCAA quarterfinal matchup versus Santa Clara. After accepting a challenge issued by one of her teammates, Notre Dame's premier player strode to the chilly practice field that day decked out in nothing but a thin-layered spandex body suit (plus cleats, a cap and gloves). She then sprinted onto the frozen tundra proclaiming, "It's not that cold out here" ... before quickly changing into warmer gear 15 minutes later.
"That produced one of the biggest laughs we've ever had as a team," says Erikson, who sees Makinen as a superstar who admirably doesn't know how to act like one. "It might have been shocking for some people to see her do something so crazy ... but it really wasn't that surprising for those of us who know her."
Early in her career at Notre Dame, Erikson was encountering some tough times and felt especially low at the end of one particular practice. After most of her teammates had walked by without notice, Makinen took one look at her roommate and knew something was wrong.
"Right away, she asked what was wrong. She just could tell that something was bothering me," recalls Erikson. "Anne knows me better than most people. Even through she often doesn't seem involved in what's going on around her, she is very perceptive and cares about people and wants them to be happy. She's always been there for me."
That care has been reciprocal, as Makinen has needed to lean on her friends while making plenty of adjustments to college life in the United States.
"Freshman year was pretty tough, with all the papers and having the travel for our games," says Makinen, who admits to feelings of frustration and loneliness during those early days. "Things gradually got better, but when you are learning a new language it's much harder to produce it than it is to understand it."
Makinen also is one of just a handful of Finland natives that are known to currently occupy the Notre Dame campus. "I heard that there was a boy from Finland going to school here but I've never met him," says Makinen. "And there is a professor here from Finland. We sent a few short e-mails to each other. Otherwise, it's just me."
Adjusting to American food also took some time for Makinen. "I can remember one day, during that first year, we were at the dining hall and she was eating a sandwich with just tomatoes and cucumber on it," says Erikson. "I think her stomach just wasn't used to some of the food.
Of course, the Notre Dame Dining Hall probably never has served Makinen's favorite food. You see, she has a particular fondness for reindeer meat. "That's been my favorite food for a long time," says Makinen. "It's similar to beef but more tender and it is kind of a delicacy in Finland."
Makinen's family background could match that from various U.S. communities: her father Olavi is a bus driver, her mother Terttu a hairdresser, and her 27-year-old sister Kirsi is married and looking to begin her own family in their native Helsinki.
"My parents are just normal folks who always have supported me in everything I've done," says Makinen, who credits her mother with her sense
of humor while picking up her love of nature and her emotional side from Olavi.
"I'm not sure where my competitiveness comes from," adds Makinen, whose parents will make their first visit to Notre Dame for next May's graduation ceremonies. "My parents don't totally understand what Notre Dame is all about, but they are very proud of me for what I've done."
Makinen grew up in her native Finland surrounded by two distinct sporting diversions. Many of her youthful days were spent participating in
a wide array of winter sports-including a skating game called "ice ball" that is played on a rink the size of a soccer field, with players hitting a small orange ball by using sticks that are similar to field hockey cudgels. But even though her homeland has a short summer season, soccer soon became Makinen's true love.
"I started playing soccer when I was seven years old and I played on a boys team until I was nine," she says. "That's when I got pretty serious about soccer and joined a girls club team. And then I was playing with the national team when I was 14."
As the youngest member of Finland's national team, Makinen actually was not allowed to compete in certain qualification tournaments because she didn't meet the minimum age requirement of 16. But she went on to become a mainstay of that team for 10 years while making a name for herself as one of the top players in the history of Finland soccer.
Makinen's skills developed at a fast rate during her formative years, in large part due to year-round training regimen and quality indoor facilities found in Finland. More often than not, she would start her day with a training session at her sport-oriented high school and would train with her club team in evenings.
After graduating from high school in 1995, Makinen faced the first major uncertainty of her life. "I was like, `What now?' I didn't know what to do, so I worked in some job at the post office for a year," she says. "I really had no plans of coming to the United States at that time."
Makinen's competitive fire still burned strongly and she was eager to continue her progress as an elite soccer player. Her youth national coach, Jutta Rautiainen, set the next phase of Makinen's life in motion when she suggested that her star player head to the adidas Soccer Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where she trained with legendary soccer coach Kai Haaskivi.
Makinen spent six months at the soccer academy, playing mostly in a men's league, and word began to get around the college soccer subculture that a major impact player was starting to think about attending college in the United States. Makinen talked with numerous college coaches and made her customary five official visits. In the end, she signed with Notre Dame and former head coach Chris Petrucelli.
"When I made my visit, I really liked the campus, the coaches and the team," recalls Makinen. "I always had heard of Notre Dame as being a good school and the education was important for me, so that was my decision."
At Notre Dame-which was just two years removed from its 1995 NCAA title-Makinen was the perfect fit for replacing Daws at the central midfielder spot and she went on to play a major role in the Irish reaching the '97 NCAA semi-finals and the '99 title game before capping her career by playing a central role in the 2000 season that saw Notre Damedespite losing five graduated starters, three of them All-Americans, from the '99 season ranked No. 1 for much of the 2000 campaign before falling to North Carolina in the NCAA semifinals (2-1, for a final record of 23-1-1).
As a freshman, Makinen enjoyed the most productive offensive season of her Irish career, with her 23 goals and 12 assists including a hat trick in the BIG EAST title-game victory over UConn. She earned national freshman-of-the-year honors, was named an All-American and was the nation's only freshman among the eight finalists for the 1997 Hermann Trophy (she then was one of five Hermann finalists in 1998 and again in '99).
Makinen went on to register 15 goals-17 assists in '98 and 13G-12A in '99, but each of those seasons ended in heartbreak. As a sophomore, she registered an assist in the NCAA quarterfinal round but saw Notre Dame's season end with a 2-1 loss to Portland. The next season, the Irish were able to advance to the Women's College Cup but Makinen was slowed by injury in the final two games, ultimately leaving the title game versus North Carolina in the 30th minute (UNC won, 2-0).
"Those were some frustrating moments, for sure," says Makinen, in reference to the final games of the '98 and '99 campaigns. "We lost some great players from the 1999 team but ended up having a great season this year, with some freshmen stepping in and playing big roles for us."
Makinen-who continually has shied away from individual awards in favor of team accomplishments-became the 13th Division I women's soccer player ever to reach 50 goals (65) and 50 assists (56) in her career, including a team-best 14G-15A during the 2000 season. She was the centerpiece of a dominating midfield that helped the Irish outscored opponents 76-10 in 2000 while owning an average shot margin of 22-6.
"Everyone we played tried to match up with Anne and mark her out of the game. But she always seems to find a way to get to the opposition," says Waldrum. "She is a very unique player to have to deal with because she is so gifted technically and has the perfect combination of speed, power and strength and a strong psychological dimension. She breaks the ice for us, has good talent around her and always has been a team player."
Makinen's "Notre Dame experience" has differed on many levels when compared to the average student, in part due to her foreign background and her age (she turns 25 in February). While many of her classmates were busy applying face paint in preparation for the season-opening football game, Makinen was busy relaxing in her room.
"Anne just doesn't get hyped up about things that most Notre Dame students do," explains Erikson. "She likes Notre Dame and appreciates what it has done for her. It's just a different experience for her and she has a more reserved personality.
"You won't see her going crazy with the other students at a football game, but it's the quality of her relationships that are important to Anne, not the quantity."
Makinen understandably struggled at times trying to meld her classic European style with the U.S. college game. "The international game is more technical and the ball moves much faster while soccer here is more physical and fitness-oriented," says Makinen, who took extra enjoyment from the preseason trip to Brazil because of the style of play those games presented.
"It was interesting to see how the Brazilian teams play. The ball moves fast and all the players are talented and skilled," she says. "Everything there is about soccer. But it also was sad to see how poor the country is, with miles and miles of slums."
Waldrum can empathize with Makinen's frustrations in trying to insert her skills into the college game. "You watch Anne play for just a few minutes and you can see how she picks and chooses her times to attack, back off, make a run-whatever. And that's all because she has a better understanding of the pace of the game," says Waldrum.
"In America, our nature is to want instant gratification and that's how our soccer teams have looked-as tireless workers but not that sophisticated. That's why the subtle things that Anne does are so special."
One of the more endearing memories of Makinen's final season came during the weeklong trip to the east coast during fall break. The Irish had elected to rest Makinen-due to nagging tendonitis in her knee-for all of the previous game (at Syracuse) and again opened with her on the bench for the Oct. 18 game at Yale. The Irish struggled during a scoreless first half in that game while adjusting to a slick field, a steady downpour and a fired-up Yale squad. As the Notre Dame team huddled during halftime, Makinen informed Waldrum that she wanted to go into the game and began warming up-in full view of the upset-minded Bulldogs, who somehow knew the momentum was about to shift.
Early in the second half, it was time for Makinen to enter the Yale game when an unexpected humorous moment cut through the tension of the still-deadlocked game. Makinen found herself in uncharted territory when it came to subbing into a game, to the point of forgetting to warm-up in the required off-color penney and not knowing the proper procedure at the official scorer's table. But once she had waded through the unfamiliar, Makinen was an instant success-slicing through the Yale defense to set up the first goal of the game by Erikson. Twenty-five minutes later, with the game-and an unbeaten season-still in the balance, Makinen pushed the game to 2-0 by placing a free kick over the Yale wall and into the upper-left
corner of the net.
"That Yale game was a classic example of Anne taking the game to another level and presenting a whole different set of challenges for teams trying to defend us," says Waldrum. "It was amazing how the game changed so quickly after she checked in."
Yale head coach Rudy Meredith was equally impressed.
"Anne completely changed the game from the moment she stepped on the field," said Meredith, during a soggy postgame conversation. "She was creating great offensive chances but also made her teammates better. That's the sign of a great player."
Notre Dame's season-long dominance produced first-half goals for the Irish in 20 of 25 games, with Makinen fittingly playing a role in all four of the games where the Irish rallied for their first goal in the second half (all but the 0-0 tie at UConn). In the second game of the season, she bailed off a struggling ND offense by firing in a goal in the 69th minute and scored again for a 2-0 win over Tulsa. One month later, the ever-reliable Makinen converted a PK in the 53rd minute to spark a 2-0 win over Rutgers and she came through in the clutch again one week later, when Makinen's bending 80th-minute corner kick produced an own goal for a 1-0 escape at Villanova.
Makinen's final season yielded a somewhat unexpected form of leadership for the veteran star, who overcame early concerns about her status as the team's oldest player to become a close friend and confidant for two of the Notre Dame program's most promising young players, freshman forward Amy Warner and midfielder Randi Scheller.
"Anne had a concern heading into this season that she might feel disconnected from the team because she is older," explains Waldrum. "But as things turned out, she became a great friend and teammate for many of our younger players and that certainly played a role in their great seasons.
"Anne just doesn't realize how much her teammates look up to her. She helps the younger players so much, it's like having an on-field coach."
Warner, for one, credits Makinen with helping inspire her breakout rookie season. "I was so nervous when the season started and wanted to start making big plays right from the start," recalls Warner. "But Anne helped me learn how to relax on the field and I learned so much from her this year about playing on a consistently high level.
"One thing people need to remember about Anne is that she was a marked player for us throughout the season but continually came up with big plays and great games. There aren't many players you can say that about."
As Makinen looks ahead to life after Notre Dame-with a possible playing career in the developing U.S. pro league or in Europe-she has the maturity to recognize that it's almost time to turn the page.
"I'm looking forward to getting my degree and I'll be ready to move on," she says. "But I'm very grateful for the education and for the friends I've made.
The whole experience of being by myself has really developed my individuality and helped me grow up a lot."
And she's left a lasting impact on college women's soccer along the way.