Scoring twice against the United States in the first half of an exhibition match June 6 gave Charmaine Hooper and the rest of the Canadian women's national soccer team a source of optimism entering this World Cup.
After just one game of the tournament, however, that optimism has taken a serious blow. A 1-1 tie with Japan on Saturday night in San Jose substantially increased the difficulty of Canada's goal -- advancing to the quarterfinals and qualifying for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.
"We needed a win going into our second game," said Hooper, who set up Silvana Burtini's goal against Japan. "Now we have to just deal with the tie and go out and get some good results in our next two games."
Canada faces defending champion Norway on Wednesday night at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium and completes the first round against Russia on Saturday in East Rutherford, N.J. Compounding the Canadians' disappointment with the tie against Japan, Burtini aggravated a hamstring injury she originally suffered in that exhibition against the United States. Burtini, who has scored 30 goals in 42 international contests, is "day to day" and may be available Wednesday night, Coach Neil Turnbull said after the team's practice yesterday at George Mason University.
But there is yet another potential complication. Hooper, the team's all-time leading scorer with 33 goals, received a yellow card five minutes into Saturday's match. Another one Wednesday would mean a one-game suspension for the Russia game.
"I know I will have to be a little less physical," Hooper said. "This is going to haunt me for the next two games."
Hooper, 31, has been playing as a withdrawn forward for about a month instead of her natural position, striker. Although she says she prefers striker, Turnbull said he expects her to stay in midfield even if Burtini, a forward, does not play.
Hooper, a former standout at North Carolina State, is one of seven Canadian players with U.S. college soccer experience. Five, including starters Sharolta Nonen, Isabelle Morneau, Amy Walsh and Tanya Franck, played -- or still play -- at Nebraska, where Canadian national team assistant coach John Walker is the head coach.
Walker said Canadian players are encouraged to attend college in the United States because "it gives them an opportunity to train year-round at a school where athletics are a high priority and an opportunity to play against some of the top teams in the country."
"With the climate in Canada," he added, "it is very difficult to have a year-round program."
Walker also noted that of the approximately 40 universities in Canada with women's soccer teams, none offers athletic scholarships. But in a country that is just beginning to recognize the sport, Hooper and others hope success this summer will translate into a stronger program in the future.
"It's coming along slowly," Hooper said of Canadian soccer. "We need more emphasis on the sport."
The United States should not have been surprised to see Hooper celebrating twice during the June 6 exhibition in Portland, Ore. After all, Hooper scored both goals for the FIFA World All-Stars when that group beat the United States, 2-1, in February in a match coinciding with the Women's World Cup draw in San Jose.
She also scored two goals in a 2-0 victory over Costa Rica that propelled Canada to the final of the North/Central American and Caribbean Women's World Cup qualifying tournament -- an event that did not include the United States because the host nation receives an automatic place in the 16-team tournament. She finished the qualifying tournament with six goals.
Hooper is one of just six players with World Cup experience on the Canadian roster. Remove those six from Canada's roster and the team averages fewer than 12 games of international experience per player.
Midfielder Geri Donnelly leads the team with 68 international appearances. Hooper is second, having played 57 games.
After her career at North Carolina State, Hooper played professionally in Japan for four seasons. Last season she played for the Chicago Cobras of the USISL W-League, and she led the league in scoring and was named the most valuable player. Burtini also appeared in the W-League last season, playing for the Raleigh Wings.
"If anything, I'm a better player today because I left Canada," said Hooper, who lives in Chicago. "And that's unfortunate."
Hooper said she thinks the Canadians can do well at the World Cup, but she believes they could do better if they had spent more time together.
While teams such as the United States and China played aggressive international schedules for months to prepare for the World Cup, Canada began its team selection camp on May 2.
Losses to the United States and Brazil in early June caused Hooper to wonder whether the team would be ready.
"We can't be improving during the World Cup," she said after the loss to the United States. "We need to improve before the World Cup."
Canada has made some strides. The Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) recently signed a four-year deal with adidas to supply all seven national teams with equipment and some financial backing.
The CSA also has reached an agreement with the national team players on Women's World Cup compensation. The players will split a guaranteed $130,000. There are bonuses for winning their first-round group, qualifying for the semifinals and the final.
A Women's World Cup championship would allow the team to split in excess of $500,000.
In addition, all 32 Women's World Cup games will be televised in Canada. For the future of the Canadian program, that might be most the important development. A solid showing with more people watching could lead to more interest and more money put toward the sport at all levels.
"That's exactly what we're hoping," Burtini said.
White reported from Portland, Ore., Kuhns from Washington.
CAPTION: Canada's Charmaine Hooper (10) fights Japan's Tomomi Mitsui for ball Saturday. Tie dimmed Canada's Cup chances.
CAPTION: Canada's Charmaine Hooper, with Coach Neil Turnbull, says Cup success will spark more support.