The U.S. women's soccer players had dreamed -- heck, fantasized -- about a day like this: when a capacity crowd that included a president and Hollywood celebrities filled a cavernous stadium to watch them play for a world championship, when a curious American public clicked on their televisions to cheer them on and when their long-obscure sport leaped into the spotlight.
That day comes Saturday at the Rose Bowl, when the United States faces China in the Women's World Cup final before nearly 90,000 spectators, including President Clinton.
"All the pressure is gone," defender Kate Sobrero said today after the U.S. team's final workout. "We did what we had to do to get here, and now we're here. It's time to play and win this thing."
It won't be that simple. China quietly tore through its first-round group and elimination rounds, and is blessed with some of the same characteristics that have made the United States so successful.
Like the Americans, the Chinese have a world-class goalkeeper. They can match U.S. star Mia Hamm with a dazzling forward of their own, Sun Wen. They're quick and skilled and composed, and they can score goals in bunches.
"They need to slow our personalities down and we need to slow their personalities down," U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco said. "But I think we have more personalities."
China, however, is plenty confident after winning two of three meetings with the Americans this year and dominating defending champion Norway, 5-0, in the semifinals last weekend.
"We have respect for the United States team," China Coach Ma Yuanan said, "but we're here to win, too. The Chinese players also dream about the championship."
The U.S. team realized its dream in 1991 -- in China, of all places -- when it won the first Women's World Cup. But to do it again, under the current circumstances, would be an incomparable feat. It also will take a better performance than the Americans have demonstrated in five previous victories in this tournament.
Sloppy defense and ineffective attacking have troubled them at times, and "if we give them a window of hope," Hamm said, "they're going to put the ball into the back of the net. They will make us pay."
The Americans are concerned about Sun, who is tied with Brazilian midfielder Sissi for the tournament lead in goals with seven, and her dangerous striking partner, Jin Yan. They are aware of dazzling midfielder Liu Ailing, who scored two sensational goals against Norway, and acrobatic goalkeeper Gao Hong, who hasn't been seriously tested in this tournament.
Perhaps the most pressure is on Hamm, a Lake Braddock High School graduate who has scored more goals in international play than any other player, male or female. She has had a relatively quiet World Cup, scoring a goal in each of the first two first-round matches and drawing constant attention from defenders on the left flank.
Hamm's coach and teammates are hoping her breakout game comes Saturday.
"She hasn't scored and we've won," DiCicco said. "She has had a great impact in every game, and if those goals come, we know we'll be in very good shape. . . . She has become a player who wants the responsibility of big games. She will be there for us tomorrow."
DiCicco is expected to stick with his three-player attacking formation that consists of Hamm on the left, Tiffeny Milbrett on the right and 5-foot-11 Cindy Parlow in the middle. Shannon MacMillan also is an option, but Parlow will have a physical advantage against the smaller Chinese defenders. If she is ineffective and the game is close, MacMillan likely will enter.
Defensively, the United States has little room for the errors that resulted in early deficits against Nigeria in the first round and Germany in the quarterfinals. China is averaging nearly four goals per game and has allowed only two, both in the first round.
"They're very organized, very quick and very calculating," said Sobrero, who started all three tuneup games against China. "They move in form. . . . They're a lot like us, which is a little frightening. We have to stick to our assignments and try to shut them down."
The U.S. team also expects to get help from a partisan crowd, which, it is believed, would be the largest for a women's sporting event in history. The players credit fans for boosting their spirits in crucial matches such as the 1996 Olympic gold medal victory over China, and the quarterfinal win over Germany nine days ago at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, in which they trailed twice.
In return, their supporters expect nothing less than victory.
"There's no measuring what it would mean to win," defender Brandi Chastain said. "It's beyond words. It's beyond emotions. It's become our whole being."
Notes: Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, which hosted three Women's World Cup doubleheaders, is being considered as a site for the U.S. Women's Cup, the next major event for the American players. The four-team tournament will take place in October, and only one of three proposed sites -- the new MLS stadium in Columbus, Ohio -- has been announced. . . .
Hamm's husband, Christian, a Marine pilot, was given leave from duty in Japan to attend the title game. . . . Members of the U.S. team that won the 1991 world championship -- including University of Virginia women's coach April Heinrichs, Navy women's coach Carin Gabarra and former George Washington coach Shannon Higgins-Cirovski -- are expected to attend.
CAPTION: Star forward Sun Wen limbers up with her Chinese teammates in preparation for today's World Cup final.