They are the team that smiles back, waves back and even claps back at their followers. On Saturday, though, even the U.S. women's national soccer team won't be able to return all of the applause: Nearly 90,000 fans are expected at the Rose Bowl for the Women's World Cup final between the United States and China. Throughout this three-week tournament, the U.S. team has been embraced by the nation, yet it's the fans in the stands who somehow end up feeling touched.
When a young boy behind a security fence at a U.S. training session this week yelled, "Brandi Chastain rocks!" the U.S. defender -- who was in the middle of a drill -- turned around and shouted with a grin, "No, you rock!"
For the past three weeks, a large segment of America has been rocked. When the U.S. players disembarked from the team bus for Thursday's training session, they were engulfed by a screeching, pen-waving crowd of mostly pre-teen boys and girls. "It was like we were rock stars," U.S. defender Joy Fawcett said. "Those were loud screams like I had never heard before. It was amazing."
The root of this unbridled enthusiasm, of course, is the team's performance. The Americans won five straight matches to advance to the final game of this 16-team tournament, which has taken place at eight venues across the nation. The U.S. players have given America what it always demands -- a winner.
And then they showed they were just getting warmed up.
In an era in which athletic role models seem to be dwindling, the American players drove into the public consciousness, settled in the spotlight, and readjusted the benchmark. They have been good sports and good citizens. And, oh yes, they are women.
"For a change, it's not just like watching men's sports on TV," said Jen Goonan, a 12-year-old from Norwood, Mass., who attended a U.S. team training session with three other girls and an aunt. "We're girls, and we might want to be athletes some day, and this proves we can do it."
"The women's team is more exciting even than watching the men's team," said Dan Schneider, a fan from Wayland, Mass., who attended the U.S. team's victory over North Korea at nearby Foxboro Stadium with his wife and two sons, ages 5 and 9. "They seem more determined, more into it and more of a team. . . . It's real important for [my sons] to see women who are this talented and this athletic and this determined."
By advancing to the final, the U.S. team also ensured this tournament would be a success. The 1995 Women's World Cup in Sweden drew 112,000 fans all told. By Saturday night, the 1999 Women's World Cup will have drawn about 650,000 fans, which represents more than 38,000 fans per event. The six U.S. team matches will have drawn an average crowd of about 68,000.
Yet despite the large crowds, most U.S. players can't afford to play soccer full time, nor is there a U.S. pro league in which they can compete. If they win the tournament, each player will receive $12,500 from the U.S. Soccer Federation -- hardly a game's pay for most of the Baltimore Orioles. They have helped put women's soccer on the map, but aside from star Mia Hamm, who has lucrative endorsement deals, they haven't gotten rich from the sport.
Well, actually, they say they have.
"It's like somebody let the secret out of the box, and all of a sudden everybody's following us around, screaming for autographs, sticking cameras in our faces," said 33-year-old U.S. midfielder Michelle Akers, who scored the first U.S. national team goal back in 1985. "It's exciting and extremely satisfying to know all of those efforts way back when have paid off. . . . I'm overjoyed just to have the opportunity to experience this."
At times during the tournament, U.S. players seemed to be floating on a magic carpet, exhilarated by the ride. At the conclusion of their 3-0 opening victory over Denmark in front of 78,972 at Giants Stadium, they embarked upon their first celebratory lap around the stadium, during which they applauded the fans.
Other times they spotted a podium and stopped to deliver a message, whether through their public comments about being role models or through their preaching of their "Team before I" philosophy. Sometimes their actions spoke for them: Several players signed so many autographs in Fairfax before the team's quarterfinal victory over Germany at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium that fans gave an impromptu round of applause when the team's public relations director finally dragged them away. When they met a Nigerian at an airline counter the day after they defeated Nigeria in Chicago, U.S. players handed him a U.S. team T-shirt and two U.S. soccer pins as a consolation.
Before the team's match against Germany, talented reserve Shannon MacMillan met with U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco. She wanted him to know that, despite the questions she was getting from reporters about her limited role, and despite the questions she assumed he was getting on the same topic, she was not unhappy and was ready to perform when asked.
That night, she entered the game in the second half and assisted on the game-winning goal.
"We care so much about each other," said Tisha Venturini, also a reserve player. "If we have to be on the bench, giving each other water and cheering and clapping, that's what we're going to do."
The U.S. players believe that, if everybody does everything the right way, then the hard-earned victory is shared -- within the team and, for the last three weeks, with the entire nation.
"It's a wonderful phenomenon," DiCicco said. "What they have had to carry, it's hard to measure. This tournament would be a lot different if they didn't promote it in the way they did, if they didn't handle themselves the way they did. And they won when they had to. They have done everything they had to."
Well, not quite everything.
Though a large part of the players' work is over, another grand task remains. The Americans want to regain the world title they lost in 1995, when Norway upset them in the semifinals. China finished second to the United States in the 1996 Olympics and beat the U.S. team twice in three meetings this year.
"The tournament is already a success," Women's World Cup CEO Marla Messing said. "I feel like this game is really for that team. It matters for their legacy. Everybody who has jumped onto the bandwagon, they want to see the payoff. They want to see them win."
On Saturday, the U.S. players will put the punctuation on their three-week ramble through America. They only hope they can close with as much excitement as they started.
"For this last hurdle," DiCicco said, "they are going to put every ounce of themselves on the field."
CAPTION: After the U.S. beat Brazil to qualify for championship game, star player MIa Hamm and teammates applauded the crowd in Palo Alto, Calif.
CAPTION: U.S. women's soccer team practices at the Rose Bowl. Today nearly 90,000 spectators are expected to fill the seats.
CAPTION: U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry practices at the Rose Bowl one day before playing for the Women's World Cup title.