By John Heisler
It may be the hot, humid, hazy days of summer in Orlando, yet in so many ways UCF women’s soccer coach Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak feels like she’s a million miles away.
She’s paying rapt attention to what’s happening these days in France with the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup on the line—while at the very same time reliving a life-changing experience from two decades back when she helped the U.S. Women’s National Team to victory in that same event.
She’s pulled by so many special memories with those ‘99ers, as they are called. And she couldn’t be prouder of the four individuals with UCF women’s soccer ties who played this year in France (two for Brazil, one each for Scotland and Jamaica).
Between moving her family into a new home in Orlando this month, watching as many World Cup games live as she possibly can and participating in all the social media and group email and text chains with both the ’99 team and the quartet playing in the 2019 event, life is more than a little crazy these days for Roberts Sahaydak.
On one hand, the two-decade anniversary of that 1999 title won in front of more than 90,000 fans in the Rose Bowl is cause for a once-again celebration, including a team reunion in April in conjunction with a game played by the current U.S. squad. Roberts Sahaydak is the first to suggest that ’99 experience—coming when she was just a teenager—informs so many aspects of her coaching philosophy and culture today at UCF.
“It stays present in my mind because the team was so special to me, and I use that experience to guide my coaching now on a daily basis,” she says. “People ask why the team was so special, and it was not just because of winning.
“The country kind of rallied around us. I think people saw we were team players, really selfless. Whenever (star forward) Mia (Hamm) was interviewed, she always deflected and would say, ‘I would not have scored that goal if Kristine Lilly did not win the tackle.’ Mia always gave credit to her teammates.
“The leaders on that team as captains were the first ones to serve anyone—they were really good role models, especially for someone like me being younger (age 19 at the time). You learned about culture and chemistry and how important those are to winning at the highest level.
“And so I use that to guide me as a coach now at UCF and make sure we have a similar culture to the ‘99ers. And we do because we talk about those same things on a daily basis--what leadership really looks like. It’s the servant style we actually have here, with the seniors taking care of the young freshmen when they come in. That selflessness and appreciation factor were really high on the ‘99ers and that’s what I hope you see with our UCF teams.
“I was kind of a bridge as a younger player in ‘99, even though I had been on the team for four or five years. We had a veteran corps and some even younger players coming in.
“And it was my personality to be happy and have energy and bring the passion, whether it was in the locker room or the bus. I was definitely part of the locker room energy,” says Roberts Sahaydak who, according to a recent ESPNW feature, had more than a little to do with the ‘99ers’ music playlists, with “Livin’ la Vida Loca” by Ricky Martin qualifying as a team favorite.
Roberts Sahaydak, joined by husband Tim and their daughters Layla and Evie, traveled to Los Angeles in April to take part in the 20-year reunion of that United States 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup title team.
“The reunion was amazing – it felt like we were back in 1999 again,” she says.
“We’ve all moved on, and we’re living our own lives and doing our own things. A lot of us have children and so you do your day-to-day thing. That time and experience back then was way different from my everyday life now, even though it still informs some of the things I do.
“Going back to be with the team, being recognized at the National Team game and seeing some of the celebrities--it was all really cool. It felt like we had just won the Cup and were on our (victory) tour. We really enjoyed ourselves and the togetherness.
“It was exactly the same. It was like no time had passed.
“We’re all just a little older, but the personalities are the same and so the dynamic was exactly the same that weekend.”
Roberts Sahaydak appreciated the fact her daughters saw her in a different light than normal.
“A lot of us have girls around the same age, and so it was really special to see our children bond,” she says.
“My kids felt cool—‘I’m a ‘99er kid.’ They saw kids and parents asking us for autographs, and so we became cool to them. I’m trying to figure out how to leverage that!
“I felt really proud because I could see in their eyes that my kids were proud of me and the team.
“For me, that was the coolest part of the weekend.”
Roberts Sahaydak particularly enjoyed reconnecting with 1999 World Cup standout Michelle Akers, who ironically played at UCF from 1984-88 and led the Knights to three NCAA Championship appearances, including a national semifinal berth in 1987.
“Michelle and I definitely have a bond,” she says. “She was one of the oldest in ’99 and I was one of the youngest. I had always looked up to her, so being on the same team with her was pretty cool.
“Tony DeCicco, our coach, always said Michelle and I were the toughest players on the team, even though we were the exact opposite physically. She was the tallest and strongest and I was the smallest and most petite, but he would always compare us. I was always humbled by that—it was pretty cool to be in the same sentence with her.
“We keep in touch – in fact, the group texts and emails are on fire right now with the games going on.
“And it’s an amazing thing to tell recruits that Michelle went to school here.”
With UCF rising senior Konya Plummer serving as captain of the Jamaica squad, Sophie Howard (she played for the Knights from 2012-14) playing for first-time qualifier Scotland and Aline Reis (a recent UCF Hall of Fame selection) and Kat Sousa (the 2017 American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year) wearing Brazil uniforms, there’s been plenty of action for Roberts Sahaydak to monitor over these weeks.
“I’ve been watching a lot of the games,” says the UCF head coach. “Brazil and Scotland and Jamaica have been my priority with our four Knights playing. I’ve been communicating with them throughout.
“With Konya, after their first loss, I texted her and told her, ‘Keep your head up, everyone’s so proud of you. You’re making such an impact no matter what the score lines are.’
“With Kat, I’ve talked with her a little and promoted them all on social media. Kat and Konya have been starting, and Sophie started the first game for Scotland.
“Watching them has been so much fun. You can see how times have changed—it’s being supported so well in France as far as crowds at the games.”
For Roberts Sahaydak--who also helped the United States win a Summer Olympic Games gold medal in 1996 in Atlanta, played on two NCAA title teams at North Carolina and spent a decade (1994-2003 after debuting as a 16-year-old) on the USNWT roster--watching the U.S. team play qualifies at another level.
“My heart is with the United States,” she says. “We are all so proud and we’re really into it. My kids wear U.S. jerseys and everything. They are definitely our favorite and we make them a priority.”
Roberts Sahaydak hopes this new family home gives her reasons to dig out the soccer ball she saved from ’99 and the other photos and memorabilia she preserved from her National Team days. The recent hub-bub around that move prompted at least one stressful moment when the start of a U.S. match came not long after a scheduled business meeting connected to the new home. That meant a plan to tape the game just in case, all the while avoiding social media to ensure they could watch the contest on a delayed basis without knowing the result.
More than anything Roberts Sahaydak loves the idea that her ‘99ers paved the way for the worldwide attention the Women’s World Cup now routinely receives.
“One of our former players, (2018 starting goaltender from Finland) Vera Varis, told me she was at Bar Louie the other day with a couple of teammates,” says Roberts Sahaydak.
“She said it was so cool to see guys watching the World Cup games during lunch and talking about specific women’s soccer players and teams and how good they were.
“They were just talking sports, and it was all around women’s soccer. She thought that was so neat to see.
“The times have changed.”
That 1999 U.S. team victory in many ways did change how all of women’s sports were viewed.
Roberts Sahaydak helped make it happen.