U.S. Women Play to the Crowd
By William Gildea
Never has women's soccer created such a stir in the United States as in the past two weeks, and last night the sport's surprising, movable feast arrived in the Washington area to another banner crowd and produced one of the most riveting games of the Women's World Cup.
The likable and talented U.S. team, which is leading the recent surge of interest in the sport, overcame a crucial mistake and a strong showing by Germany for a 3-2 victory in a quarterfinal match before 54,642 fans at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium including President Clinton, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and daughter Chelsea.
With the hard-fought victory, the United States advanced to a semifinal game Sunday in Palo Alto, Calif., against Brazil in what has turned into a wildly popular nationwide tour for the U.S. team.
The Americans, who qualified for the 2000 Olympics by winning last night, outscored their three first-round opponents by the total of 13-1, but last night they trailed twice and needed goals by Brandi Chastain and Joy Fawcett during a thrilling second-half comeback. Chastain's goal was especially satisfying because a mix-up in the game's fifth minute had resulted in her accidentally tapping the ball into her team's goal to give Germany a 1-0 lead.
But once they recovered from the shock of the own-goal, as it is called, fans responded by continuing to cheer for Chastain culminating in a roar when she scored later in the game.
As time expired, the crowd gave the U.S. team a standing, flag-waving ovation as the players celebrated at midfield with embraces among themselves and grateful waves to the fans. Her right ankle injured, Chastain was carried from the field by teammates as the crowd continued to cheer. Clinton, who watched the game from a luxury suite, visited with the players afterward and offered his congratulations.
"The game was incredibly exciting, and to have the president come down and honor this team just was so fitting," said Tony DiCicco, 50, who has coached the U.S. team to a 97-8-7 record and an Olympic gold medal since 1994. "America saw tonight why it was so attracted to this team. They played on pure guts. They refused to be beaten. The Germans were an outstanding team. The game could have gone either way."
Chastain said her own-goal "gave me an extra boost to do something. Thank God for Tony's trust in me and my teammates' respect for what I've done over the years."
Fans who made their way to the two-year-old Cooke Stadium overcame heavy Beltway traffic and rain in the area an hour before the 7 p.m. kickoff. Late ticket requests forced organizers to open part of the top deck of the stadium, which had been closed for two first-round doubleheaders not involving the U.S. team. A downsized 41,000 capacity was increased Tuesday when additional tickets were made available in what is ordinarily an 80,116-seat facility used primarily by the Washington Redskins.
But last night, instead of burgundy and gold decorations, the motif was patriotic and the passion all about soccer. Young girls wearing No. 9 Mia Hamm jerseys were everywhere. About 13,000 yellow-colored noisemakers (they came in pairs, to be inflated and banged together) were handed out at the gates by organizers and employed throughout the game. Fans not limited to teenagers used bucketloads of face paint.
Tom Stanton, 55, of Columbia had blue and white streaks painted across his cheeks, red letters "U.S.A." on his forehead and spray-on hair dye.
"I never dress like this" for other sporting events, Stanton said. "But this is it. I love women's soccer. We have a super team, we are going to win and how can you not support this?"
Cpl. Dave Redmond, a Prince George's County police officer, urged on the U.S. team, especially when Hamm touched the ball. "Let's go, Michael Jordan, do your thing," he cried out, the Jordan reference prompted by the Hamm-Jordan television commercial in which Hamm "competes" with Jordan in several sports to the chorus, "Anything you can do, I can do better."
"I've been to Redskins games where the crowd wasn't this into it," Redmond said. "Even if you were not a fan, you would enjoy this because of the vibes here tonight."
Many families brought their own picnic tables, set them up in the parking lots and gathered the children about for pregame meals. Two 11-piece bands one group Nigerians, the other German played on each side of Gate A. Another band playing American music held forth on a stage at Gate F, where a crowd dressed in red, white and blue watched and applauded before filing into the stadium to root on the national favorites. Scores of fans waved various-sized flags as they greeted the U.S. team with a big ovation.
The cheering, though, was not limited to the U.S. team.
"It was a thrill playing before such a large crowd," German defender Ariane Hingst said. "We felt some of the people supported us, too. We look forward to crowds like this for our games in Germany."
The enthusiastic turnout at Cooke Stadium on a humid night followed big crowds for the Americans' first-round victories 78,792 at the Giants Stadium opener, a record for women's soccer; 65,080 at Chicago's Soldier Field, and 50,484 at Foxboro (Mass.) Stadium. The U.S. team will have to face another tough opponent Sunday in the semifinals; Brazil beat Nigeria in overtime in the second game of the doubleheader.
Cooke Stadium became a soccer venue for the first time after District officials passed on the chance to hold two first-round dates and the quarterfinals at RFK Stadium. The District bid to hold the final game. When that bid was rejected, Women's World Cup officials asked the D.C. Sports Commission to submit another bid. But the commission declined. Cooke Stadium stepped in with its bid, and last night the newer venue was turned into a festive site.
"The atmosphere at the stadiums has been great," said Marla Messing, the tournament's president and CEO. "The numbers are going to be beyond even the third set of revisions to our predictions. The U.S. team has struck a chord with young people around the country. Young girls have discovered the excitement, the passion, all the great things about sports."
The U.S. team won the first Women's World Cup in 1991, but the event, held in China, caused little stir. The second Women's World Cup, in which the United States was beaten by Norway in the semifinals, attracted only 112,000 fans in Sweden.
It was in 1996 at the Summer Olympics that the American women's soccer team began to inspire widespread fan fervor. In the gold medal game played in Athens, Ga., before more than 76,000 fans, the United States beat China, 2-1, in a tense match that signaled to Women's World Cup officials the feasibility of making their third tournament a major event to be held in big stadiums across the United States rather than small stadiums primarily in the East, as had been contemplated.
The success of the American women's soccer team marks a new plateau for women's sports in the United States. Twenty-seven years after the enactment of Title IX, the federal statute that bars sex discrimination in education, the stature of women's sports has been elevated especially by the U.S. soccer team and the professional Women's National Basketball Association, now in its third year.
"We're not going to know the full legacy of the tournament until we're deep into the new millennium," Messing said. "I firmly believe that registration [in the U.S.] numbers are going to go way up among girls and women this year and for years to come. Federations [around the world] will continue to put resources behind their women's programs. [The Women's World Cup] is going to fuel the growth of women's soccer all around the world."
Special correspondent Will Kuhns contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company