The late-game drama generated by the U.S. women’s national team has not only sustained the quest for a first Women’s World Cup title since 1999; it has turned American soccer’s fortunes during an otherwise disappointing stretch on the international front and reminded a mainstream audience of the sport’s engaging powers.
For the first time since the U.S. men’s squad took us on a wild ride in South Africa last summer, there’s a buzz about soccer. MLS continues to make strides and Europe’s elite clubs have returned to fill stadiums during their annual marketing tours, but the sport has always received its biggest lift when our national teams succeed on the global stage.
Soccer is one of the few sports that allows Americans to test themselves, collectively, against the rest of the world on a consistent basis. Olympians must wait four years. Baseball’s world tournament has been slow to catch on. The basketball world championship isn’t a priority for the players. Golf and tennis, sports for individuals, offer team events that attract only narrow audiences.
The U.S. soccer teams are truly America’s “home” teams, regular travelers on the international circuit. As a nation, we export pop culture and political ideals, but to truly connect with a European, South American or African, soccer is the icebreaker. And with the United States making gains, it’s now as easy to discuss Landon Donovan as Leonardo DiCaprio.
TV ratings and attendance figures show growing popularity in the U.S. national soccer programs, a product of the sport’s development and Americans’ intense pride in their country. Of late, however, substandard results have dampened that enthusiasm. The men’s national team stumbled through this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, the championship for the North and Central America and Caribbean region, before being outclassed by bitter rival Mexico in the final.
The junior teams also faltered, failing to qualify for the Under-20 World Cup for the first time in 16 years and getting blasted out of the U-17 world tournament in the second round.
Shrouded by this week’s heroics was a historically poor showing by this same women’s group in World Cup qualifying last fall. So dominant in the region for 20 years, the Americans lost to Mexico in the semifinals and needed to win a third-place match and a two-game special playoff against Italy just to book flights to Germany this summer.
Off the field, the U.S. soccer leaders suffered a punch to the gut in December when their seemingly impeccable bid to stage the 2022 World Cup lost out to tiny Qatar (albeit under controversial circumstances).
The doldrums continued at the Women’s World Cup with mediocre displays in the group stage, including a loss to Sweden — the first-ever setback in the opening round.
The campaign was winding toward a sad end in the quarterfinals, with the Americans down a player and facing a deficit in extra time against Brazil. However, Wambach’s stunning equalizer in the waning moments, followed by Solo’s save in the penalty kick tiebreaker, altered the story line and rekindled the public’s interest in women’s soccer like no time since the 1999 final at the sold-out Rose Bowl.
The women’s team might not have the drawing power of the men’s squad — the gulf in attendance figures for home matches and in international player recognition is vast — but the women do offer unique characteristics.
Because pro opportunities in women’s soccer aren’t as lucrative as in the men’s game, every player passed through college programs and all but German-based defender Ali Krieger compete in Women’s Professional Soccer, the struggling U.S. league. (Most of the top talent on the U.S. national men’s team is based abroad, and many skipped college altogether or left early to pursue careers.)
Sundhage is a guitar-strumming Swede. Many players learned the game competing against boys. At age 3, Lauren Cheney had open-heart surgery. Krieger, who is from Dumfries, survived a pulmonary embolism five years ago. Stephanie (Lopez) Coxserves as an inspiration in the Latin American community, which doesn’t embrace women’s soccer as it does with the men’s game.
Heather Mitts, who missed the previous two World Cups because of injuries, has modeled and is married to NFL quarterback A.J. Feeley. Captain Christie Rampone has two daughters. Becky Sauerbrunn was a national soccer scholar athlete of the year at the University of Virginia. Growing up, Nicole Barnhart named her kittens Mia, Lilly and Scurry — after the 1999 World Cup stars — and persuaded her parents to order cable so she could watch the matches.
While not as physical and fast as the men’s game, women’s soccer is refreshing in its sense of honor: fewer theatrical dives, less dissent aimed at the game officials and humbler goal celebrations. Simply put, there’s no disparaging the U.S. team’s success over 20 years, the riveting theater it has producted the past week and the galvanizing impact it has had on the American sports scene.