'I Belong On That Team'

DEBBIE KELLER FELT JILTED ON Valentine's Day. Her boyfriend got her a sweet card. He even surprised the sunny 23-year-old with a visit from out of town. But as one of the world's top women soccer players, Keller wanted to be living it up with the U.S. women's national team. They were in San Francisco, enjoying an elegant hotel, signing autographs for young fans. Almost everybody in the soccer world had expected Keller to be there, too. But while the other players basked in the attention, Keller was home in suburban Chicago, having been cut from the team during tryouts in December. ""While they're training, I'm here in the snow,'' she says. ""I belong on that team.''

The reason she's not on the national team, Keller claims, is because of a sexual-harassment suit she filed last August against her former college coach at the University of North Carolina, Anson Dorrance. While Keller does not claim explicit sexual come-ons, she says he created a ""hostile'' play environment. Dorrance, who denies Keller's charges, is a legend in women's soccer, having led the UNC Tar Heels to 15 college championships. He is a former coach of the national team as well. Ten of the 26 players chosen for the current team played for Dorrance at UNC, and most of them--including star Mia Hamm--support the coach. That loyalty and the clubbiness of the soccer world, Keller believes, doomed her chances of making the team after she sued Dorrance.

This week, Keller and Williams & Connolly, the powerhouse D.C. law firm she hired, will go one step further, filing for arbitration against U.S. Soccer, the team's organizing federation. She wants another shot at playing in this summer's Women's World Cup, to be played here in the United States, which--for Americans, at least--will be the biggest event in the history of the sport. The $12 million claim in the harassment suit Keller filed with one other former UNC player, Melissa Jennings, is not just an ugly blemish on soccer, but also the highest-profile harassment lawsuit to date in women's sports.

During her years at UNC (1993 to 1997), Keller alleges in the court papers, Dorrance often intruded excessively into her life. He would call her, ""monitoring her personal activities.'' She received handwritten notes that she felt crossed the line between supportive father figure and creep. One says, in part, ""I put my arm around your shoulders and pulled you close so I could whisper in your ear.'' He would beckon her for private chats; the complaint alleges that he ""touched her head and stroked her hair.'' Keller told NEWSWEEK: ""I wanted comments about my playing, not my body.'' Jennings, the other plaintiff, alleges in the complaint that Dorrance would ""constantly interrogate'' players about their personal lives, including their sex lives.

Dorrance says the charges have ""shocked and saddened'' him. ""I would love to talk all about it,'' he told NEWSWEEK, ""but I can't.'' His lawyer also said he could not comment. UNC stands by its star coach. In a letter from athletic director Richard Baddour to Jennings's father, written before the lawsuit, he acknowledges only that Dorrance had ""inappropriate'' group discussions of a ""jesting or teasing nature.''

Many of Keller's UNC teammates say they are bewildered by her charges. ""It's sour grapes about something,'' says Cindy Parlow, 20, a team member and UNC player. ""I think she is making it up.'' Dorrance gets personal, other former and current players agree, but means no harm. He jokes about their love lives, brushes back the bangs from their eyes and writes them all notes. All the players call him Anson.

If Keller were just another player, would she have made the World Cup team? Never a starter, she was still the second leading scorer on last year's national squad. One of the top players, Michelle Akers, says: ""I'm surprised. She's kind of been a regular.'' Talent, of course, isn't everything. ""I am concerned with some chemistry issues,'' national-team coach Tony DiCicco wrote in Keller's evaluation. He refers to the lawsuit and also mentions tension with other players. DiCicco is a friend and former assistant coach of Dorrance's; Keller believes that relationship influenced his judgment. DiCicco says he did what was best for the team, adding that ""I knew my decision would be criticized.''

The timing of the scandal couldn't be worse. The U.S. team is the favorite to win this summer's Cup, which is being held in the United States for the first time. But Keller's case has divided the World Cup team, and many sports observers believe that her suit will not be the last of its kind. As women's sports gets bigger, they say, so will its problems.