- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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BOSTON -- The streets of Sao Paulo and the beaches of Copacabana spawned a new generation of women's soccer players whose technical skill and artistic showmanship helped Brazil dispatch the United States in the recent Women's World Cup.
An American answer might depend on places like the backyard of the DiMartino family home in Massapequa, N.Y., a Long Island suburb of New York City.
Products of an athletic upbringing in which playing the game took precedence over fitting in a system, UCLA junior Christina DiMartino and Boston College sophomore Gina DiMartino are now among the most creative players in college soccer and key contributors for teams that rank among this season's championship contenders.
Fresh off an upset last weekend against then second-ranked Portland, newly-minted No. 2 UCLA travels to San Diego State Friday and plays host to No. 5 Santa Clara Sunday. And a week after tying No. 14 Clemson in its first game against a ranked team, No. 9 Boston College continues its ACC schedule with a Friday-Sunday homestand against Duke and No. 25 Wake Forest.
Two of the five children of Daniel, a New York City firefighter, and Patrice DiMartino, Christina and Gina grew up competing in all the familiar settings for talented prospects in this country. They starred on successful club and high school teams (they played on different club teams but played together at Massapequa High School), as well as the Olympic Development Program and various youth national teams.
The sometimes complex, and frequently expensive, network of teams, travel and structured competition has become a well-established feeder system for both college soccer and national teams. It unquestionably provides tremendous training resources and instruction, but it's also a system that can be rigid and stifling.
"The detriment of having organized soccer is we as coaches get too involved at a young age," Boston College coach Alison Kulik said. "And [Gina] is one of the few kids who still plays in the backyard. Brazil, they don't have organized coaches. They're watching the men's team and then they're trying to do it in the streets and in the parks. We've got to encourage that flair; we've got to encourage creativity. And then we've got show them some of it too. ... We've got to encourage that."
It was certainly encouraged in the DiMartino's backyard, where despite his basketball background, Daniel would encourage his daughters in any way he could -- up to and including standing in goal while the girls took aim at him. Along with their two younger sisters, Victoria and Jaclyn, Christina and Gina played for hours without the cones and conditioning drills that serve to both instruct and deconstruct the organized game.
"It was kind of competitive -- really competitive," Christina said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. "But it was just fun. It was something we enjoyed doing, going outside as little kids and competing against each other. It was just practicing our different moves and our touches, and then as we got older, it was more helping each other out shooting and things, soccer-wise, that we needed to become better players."
Instead of becoming cogs in systems built around producing tangible results, they perfected the moves and developed the style that garnered no greater accolade than family bragging rights until the next time the backyard game reconvened.
"It's not typical of the U.S. system," Kulik said. "We're very defensive-minded. The pass goes from A to B, we get shape and we're really, really fit as a group; that's our country in a nutshell. And then you've got these special individuals that come along, like the DiMartino sisters -- and they're few and far between -- that just get it and have been doing stuff with the ball. That's Gina in her backyard with her older brother and her sisters. All the stuff she pulls out, it's not really our system; it's literally her in her backyard with her sister being like, 'Can you do this?'"
The result is a creativity that despite their shared slight stature -- Gina is the taller of the two at 5-foot-3 -- exerts an enormous impact on games through an often mesmerizing blend of ball control, balance and bravado. It's almost "joga benito," as the Brazilians call their brand of football.
And thanks to Christina's bold move off the field in ditching the Northeast for Westwood, it's a style tormenting opponents and pleasing fans on both coasts.
One of the nation's top-rated recruits coming out of high school -- she politely rebuffed Boston College's attempted wooing, but said that the Eagles should take a look at her younger sister -- Christina said she picked UCLA because she wanted to experience something new for four years, knowing that her long-term future was probably back closer to her family and her Mets.
"The location is great, but I'm a New Yorker at heart, I think," Christina laughed.
Watch her knife through a defense and it's no stretch to suggest she could score 15 or 20 goals a season, even in the Pac-10, if she devoted herself strictly to that pursuit or played on a team that had no other scoring options. But in choosing UCLA, she took on a different role, one that made the 10 goals she scored her first two seasons almost an afterthought. Playing alongside Lauren Cheney (eight goals in eight games this season), Danesha Adams (six goals) and Kara Lang (two goals in one game since returning from her second World Cup stint with Canada), she is the playmaker setting the table for three players who could be starting in the 2011 or 2015 World Cups.
"Anything that I ask from them, they can do," Christina said. "It's just so easy to play with them, because I know what to expect from them, I know they're going to give 100 percent and it makes my job much easier."
As close as she is to her sister, Gina followed a different route on and off the field. She had no interest in straying beyond her native time zone and eventually settled on Boston College from amongst a group of regional powers vying for her services. A successful program since Kulik took over 11 seasons ago, Boston College's star grew more luminous after the Eagles debuted in the ACC in 2005. Far from struggling to survive in a tougher league, the team held its own in going 25-13-5 and reaching the third round of the NCAA Tournament each of the last two seasons (they also advanced that far in the program's final season in the Big East).
Gina was a big part of the success last season, leading the team in scoring with 13 goals and five assists as a freshman -- as both her coach and her sister put it, she's a "goal scorer." But now something of a veteran on a team that, despite returning eight starters, has 13 freshman and sophomores and only three seniors, she is learning to deal with ramifications of success that are far less glamorous than her spot on the Under-20 national team that finished second at the Pan-Am Games this summer.
"She has garnered a lot more attention, so we've talked to her a lot this year about her release," Kulik explained. "If two people are going to go on you, then you've got get your head up and slip the next pass a little sooner. She's put a lot of pressure on herself to be the goal scorer on the team, and we talked about that it might change a little bit. We talked about her vision and really trying – if two people are on you, someone is going to be open on the front line."
It's also a challenge about which she can seek guidance from her sister, with whom she talks every day and who she'll visit in Los Angeles after the season. In Christina's words, they are best friends, and as Gina explained, no matter the miles between them, there is a never a question as to who she'll call first if she ever has a problem.
Not that there isn't still some of that backyard sisterly competitiveness alive and well. While she wasn't looking to play with Christina in college, Gina admitted she wouldn't have minded playing against her a few times. And for her part, Christina's bashful modesty disappeared long enough for her to opine that she would "probably kick her butt" if the teams played.
Boston College did travel to UCLA last spring, but the two schools have only one more chance to pit the sisters against each other in the fall season, barring a meeting in the NCAA Tournament.
"We're working on it right now," Kulik laughed. "We're hoping to get out to the West Coast for sure. We'd love to see another DiMartino matchup, why not?"
If it happens, it will be both a reunion and a reminder that nurturing soccer's true artistry is not a paint-by-numbers endeavor.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
UCLA's Christina DiMartino and her younger sister Gina, a standout at Boston College, have brought a breath of fresh air to women's college soccer -- not to mention success to their respective schools.