Shortly, we will be driving out to Pasadena wishing that all roads led there. The Pasadena and the Foothill freeways won't be wide enough to keep traffic moving toward the Rose Bowl. Local authorities are urging everyone to depart at dawn or use a shuttle bus. In the classifieds, they're asking up to $1,000 a ticket to see Saturday's game. You'd think the Super Bowl was being played out there. It's women's soccer. And that's good. Given the number of lackluster Super Bowls, a much more exciting day is anticipated.

Women have played a limited role in the 76-year history of the Rose Bowl, to say the least. They've almost never played there, except musical instruments. They have been queens and sometimes parade grand marshals. But play a game? Almost never. Their time finally has come in an exceptional way. The U.S.-China game to decide the third Women's World Cup is as appealing as an athletic event gets and has sold out the place, a fitting culmination to a first-rate tournament.

Times do change. NBC's Tom Brokaw has arrived to interview the players his network snubbed in its coverage of the 1996 Olympics. For the U.S. team and its fans, Saturday afternoon promises an extraordinary victory celebration. Or heartbreak. Who can say which? Both teams are outstanding, and evenly matched -- part of the essence of sports. We know about Mia Hamm. We've heard about and seen a bit of Sun Wen. The Chinese are quicker; but the Americans play with their whole hearts, and will have a stadium, and a country, behind them.

For American fans, two notes of concern have been sounded this week -- only one pertaining to the game. That would be Hamm. She arrived here from Sunday's semifinal at Stanford looking exhausted. She mustered only wan smiles at the airport when surrounded by fans. When a television reporter asked her a question as she walked along, she hesitated in the middle of her reply and stared so long I wondered if she was going to finish the sentence. This comes from playing three games in eight days and being at the epicenter of celebrity for weeks.

Tony DiCicco, the U.S. coach, admitted Thursday after training at Pomona College that Hamm has been tired, but said he hoped five days off would help her recover. Hamm seemed to say that her main concern was her mental approach -- for all her talent, she recently confessed to having sometimes fragile confidence. "Offensively, people say I haven't been as consistent," she said. "I'm okay with the way things are going. I think I need to stay positive." After an easy practice Friday at the Rose Bowl, Hamm said she at last was rested, that even as late as Thursday she had felt "heavy-legged."

Off the field this week, a disturbing side note. Newspaper articles have suggested that sex appeal is the reason for the groundswell of popularity being enjoyed by the team -- and more, that the players have been promoting their sexuality. What a stretch. It's true the American players are a fresh-faced group, but to me they have captured people's hearts with their freshness of spirit. Because of their upbeat attitudes, a joy in living. Because they play well as a team and play exciting soccer, and maybe most of all because they clearly are dedicated to doing their best.

They're easy to root for because no player is pouting about the difficult life of an athlete, or how taxing fame can be, or threatening not to play. As it happens, at least for now, the U.S. team is making all its news on the field, which limits reporters' topics but is another reason why the team is so popular. The game's the thing. How refreshing.

Consider June 24 in Chicago when Hamm scored the Americans' second goal against Nigeria and ignited the team, which then turned the game into a 7-1 rout. Soldier Field went wild because Hamm's shot was remarkable. Still on the run, and a long run at that, she kicked a laser of a shot from about 20 yards that found the back of the net in a blink. Michelle Akers's play in the semifinal against Brazil demonstrated the determination and courage of a great athlete. She collided head to head with an opponent and later took a kick in the head, backing off neither time despite the danger. She played fearlessly.

No wonder the American players have given young girls new ambitions in a team sport, and been an inspiration to others as well. "I'll see you in two years when I'm old enough to make the team," said a young fan to no one in particular as she turned and walked away following a U.S. practice the other day. Marla Messing, head of the organizing committee, got it just about right when she said this week, "This U.S. team has captivated hearts like no team since the 1980 Olympic hockey team."

The only problem with that is, the competition is not over. The U.S. and China are so close in talent that China has won two of three games between them this year, with all three scores being 2-1. In April, they traded victories on goals in stoppage time. The Chinese are not in the final game by accident, as a news conference Wednesday further suggested. The U.S. sent its head coach and two players but, conspicuously, the Chinese were represented only by an assistant coach. Yan Zhong Jian, the assistant, explained through an interpreter: "We're preparing well for the game and that's one reason why the head coach is absent from the press conference."

Later, Yan reemphasized the Chinese players' preparation: "They have considered every difficulty and are well organized. The Chinese realize that the American team is a strong team, but the Chinese have the quality to win this game."

From the way he sounded, the look in his eye and his smile, I got the impression that the Chinese had come with the firm purpose of reversing the tournament's 1991 outcome, when the U.S. won the Cup in China. Yet there was nothing to choose between Yan's confidence and that of DiCicco, who said: "The Chinese are very good, but I like my team. This is going to be a great showcase for women's soccer and women's athletics."