For the past week, the U.S. women's national soccer team's players have been restless and anxious about Saturday's game against Denmark at Giants Stadium, the opener of the 1999 Women's World Cup. They understand the significance of a nationally televised game that will be played before a sellout crowd of more than 78,000. They know Saturday's event, a doubleheader in which Brazil will play Mexico in the second game, will be both a defining moment and a mere beginning. A cause for celebration, and a reason for restraint.
The crowd's size alone will endow this game with historical significance and immediate credibility. It will break the world record for a women's soccer event, set when 76,489 attended the 1996 Summer Olympics gold medal game at the University of Georgia's Sanford Stadium. (Saturday's mark may not last long, though. If the U.S. team advances beyond the first round, it could play at bigger venues.)
On Saturday, however, the U.S. players will appreciate the crowd not so much to the extent that it sets a record, but to the extent that it can help them beat Denmark, which lost to the United States, 5-0, last year. While one mission was accomplished today, when the final tickets to Saturday's match were sold, another one -- just as important to the U.S. team -- is three weeks and six victories from completion. In the last Women's World Cup, in Sweden in 1995, the favored United States was upset by Norway in the semifinals. The U.S. players, six of whom are playing in their third World Cup, want to regain the title they won at the inaugural Women's World Cup in China in 1991.
And what better place to do it than on home soil, in sold-out stadiums decked out in red, white and blue?
"You just get this incredible feeling of strength and confidence," said U.S. forward Tiffeny Milbrett, who scored the winning goal in the 1996 Olympic final, as that huge crowd roared. "It's like, `Yes! You are here for us! We love you!' It's like this huge shot of adrenaline, almost indescribable. You can't help [but] be awed by it."
However, the U.S. players say their experience with overflowing stadiums will take them only so far. They point out that they thought -- mistakenly -- that playing in front of a crowd of 64,196 in a 1996 Olympic semifinal would ready them for the even larger crowd at the final.
"We all said we were calm and ready to go," U.S. midfielder Shannon MacMillan said. "But when you watch a videotape of that game, watch the camera pan across everyone's faces, you can see we are all ready to pass out."
Said U.S. defender Brandi Chastain: "I think everybody has that nervous energy. That nervousness goes along with how important the tournament is. We could be playing the Ivory Coast -- I don't even know if Ivory Coast has a women's team -- it doesn't matter. We have to go out with a single purpose and play."
Many observers believe there will be a direct correlation between the U.S. team's success and that of the tournament, which involves teams from 16 nations and concludes July 10 in Pasadena, Calif. Unlike the 1994 men's World Cup, during which foreign fans helped sell out major stadiums across the United States, only about five percent of the more than 480,000 tickets sold to date for this tournament have gone to fans outside the United States. Denmark Coach Jorgen Hvidemose said he expected perhaps 200 fans from his country to be at Giants Stadium on Saturday. The Brazilian and Mexican teams don't expect many more.
Denmark brings a team with several veterans of the 1996 Olympics and the 1995 Women's World Cup, in which it finished sixth among 12 nations. The Danes are led by forwards Lene Jensen and Gitte Krogh. Forward Mikka Hansen grew up in the United States and obtained dual citizenship through her Danish father. In typical Scandanavian soccer style, the Danish team likes to keep the ball in the air, winning control of headers. U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco promises his team will play a distinctly American game. Considered one of the world's most offense-minded teams, the Americans employ three forwards -- Milbrett, Mia Hamm and Cindy Parlow -- rather than the customary two. (For comparison, the U.S. men's team last year played with one in the men's World Cup in France. The United States lost all three of its first-round games.)
"Americans like to play sports a certain way," DiCicco said. "They like aggressiveness. They like offensive-minded teams. They want their teams to go out and attack. . . . They are a product of their society, and that's the way they are going to go out there."
In a tournament that will, for its duration, be about far more than goals, perhaps Marla Messing, CEO and president of the Women's World Cup Organizing Committee, put it best last week. "I'm very excited," she said, "I'm also very anxious, and I'm very hopeful."
CAPTION: Coach Tony DiCicco said U.S. will be aggressive, offese-minded in quest for second World Cup title.