IN RETROSPECT, GROWING UP IN A household with three rough-and-tumble older brothers probably helped kindle Tiffany Roberts's competitive fire. When she was 7, her 9-year-old brother, Scott, used to put her in front of a hockey goal and use her as a target for slapshots. He also practiced karate chops on her and would summon her whenever an extra player was needed for neighborhood football games. "[My friends] would say, 'No, no, she's a girl, she can't!' " recalls Scott, now 20 and a student at Diablo Valley College in California. "I'd just say, 'We'll see.' "

Now the whole world is seeing. Roberts is starting midfielder on the world champion U.S. women's soccer team, which on June 6 will begin defense of its 1991 title at the second ever women's World Cup in Sweden. At 18, Roberts is the team's youngest player and, at 5'4", one of its smallest. But she is also aggressive and lightning-fast. "Tiffany's size is deceiving," says U.S. coach Tony DiCicco. "She's not afraid of anyone. No one gets around her."

A three-time high school all-Ameri-can and 1994 U.S. player of the year, Roberts was competing on the western regional Olympic development team in November 1993 when she caught the attention of the national squad. "It wasn't her technical skills that made us notice her," says DiCicco. "It was her speed and determination. She never gives up." Invited to try out for" the team that same month, Roberts not only earned a spot but in January cracked the starting lineup. "She's got a great attitude," says team captain Carla Overbeck, 27. "She's always happy and smiling. She just loves the game."

It didn't take long for Roberts to prove her mettle. In her first international match as a starter against Portugal, Roberts, outnumbered by attackers, flagrantly fouled an opponent to break up the play and received a yellow warning card. A second one would have meant her ejection. "Here's a 16-year-old with a yellow card in her first international appearance—let's see how it affects her," DiCicco recalls thinking. "She never missed a beat. She kept attacking the ball. Right then I knew she had what it takes."

Tiffany's schoolgirl opponents found that out long ago. Her father, Dave, 50, a budget analyst for Chevron, and her mother, Rose, 48, a Philippine-born human-resources specialist with the company, started Tiffany in a local league in their hometown of San Ramon, Calif., at age 6. By the end of the year she was the league's top scorer. At Carondelet High in Concord, 40 miles east of San Francisco, Roberts not only led the soccer team to a 61-5-5 record over four years, she also starred in track, where she was nationally ranked at 400 and 800 meters. Still, soccer is her first love. When her high school coach showed his players a videotape of the U.S. victory in the first women's world championship game in 1991, Roberts told herself she would make that team someday. "I just didn't know it would happen so soon," she says.

Joining the team meant moving to the U.S. training center in Orlando last January. There, Roberts finished high school via correspondence while adhering to a rigorous, 6-hour-a-day training schedule and at least one game per week. "It's tough sometimes," she admits. "I miss my friends, school and having free time...but this is definitely worth it." She also misses Brandon Black, 18, her boyfriend of two years. "We compete in everything—basketball, tennis and Wiffle ball in the backyard. He kicks my butt," she says, "but he won't play soccer with me." DiCicco granted her a leave from training last month to attend Black's high school prom with him. "I couldn't miss it," she says. "Your senior prom only comes around once."

Her teammates—ages 19 to 30—have taken Roberts under their wing while doling out good-natured ribbing to their youngest player. "If people are making out on TV, they'll say, 'Turn it off, there's a child in the room!' " says Roberts, laughing. Coach DiCicco, too, makes it a point to look out for Roberts. "When boys try to come talk to me, he'll stand in front and say, 'Hi,' and they'll get intimidated," she says.

DiCicco is probably looking past the short-term. In the fall, Roberts begins college at the University of North Carolina, where the women's team has won nine consecutive NCAA championships. Next spring Roberts will return to DiCicco's tutelage when she takes a leave of absence to train for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where women's soccer will debut as a medal sport. Eventually, she says, she would like to pursue a career in broadcasting. "I've been interviewed a lot since joining the national team," she says. "I like being in front of the camera."

Of course, Roberts wouldn't mind keeping her team on-camera this spring—ESPN is telecasting the tournament—all the way to the finals in Stockholm on June 18. "Everyone says I have the biggest heart on the team," she says. "I have this thing inside me: I can't stand to get beat."

SUSAN REED
KURT PITZER in San Ramon

  • Contributors:
  • Kurt Pitzer.