The view was “outrageous,” Abby Wambach said, and watching the mountain bikers navigate the steep inclines was even better.
But as Wambach and the rest of the U.S. women’s soccer team ate lunch last week at a restaurant on top of the Alps at the conclusion of their World Cup training camp in Leogang, Austria, the 31-year-old forward grew reflective about the challenges facing the Americans. Wambach and her teammates not only will be gunning for the world championship, but they also will try to kick-start interest in women’s professional soccer in their home country.
“It’s amazing and it’s beautiful,” Wambach said via telephone from the team bus as the Alps faded into the distance. “But this is kind of one of those moments where we can be retrospective and see and feel the things we’ve done to get to this point. World Cups bring a special kind of spotlight to our team, and it gives us the opportunity to show the world the kinds of things we can offer as a sport.”
The United States — which opens World Cup play on Tuesday against North Korea in Dresden, Germany — hasn’t won the world championship since Brandi Chastain famously flashed her sports bra following a win in a penalty kick shootout over China in 1999, a game that still defines women’s soccer in this country.
Since then, two women’s professional soccer leagues have tried to establish themselves in the United States. One, the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA), suspended operations after three years because of inconsistent crowds and a failure to turn a profit.
In 2009, Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) began play. Now in its third year, the WPS has seen four franchises fold and has six teams for the 2011 season.
Team owner Dan Borislow, who bought the Washington Freedom last December and relocated the club to South Florida under the name magicJack, told the Miami Herald last month that the Freedom would have gone under had he not bought the team and that “the league is dying, and it may not be around next year.”
Wambach, who has played for the Washington-South Florida franchise all three years the WPS has existed, said her teammates enter the World Cup acutely aware of how tenuous the situation is in regards to keeping the league from going under. They’re hoping another successful run in the World Cup will return women’s soccer to the nation’s consciousness.
“I think Americans relate better to winners, and if we can win, it will definitely help the cause of a professional soccer league in our country,” Wambach said. This year’s World Cup will feature 36 WPS players, including 20 on the U.S. roster. “I know everybody on our team has the World Cup on their mind, and that is our number one goal, but we also know we can do so much more big-picture stuff if we, in fact, do win.”
Ticket sales for this World Cup provide a glimmer of hope. The host of this year’s tournament, Germany, played its opening match Sunday in front of a sellout crowd of 73,680 at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium.
FIFA officials said last week that more than 670,000 tickets have been sold for the tournament’s 32 matches.
“We’re well on course to meet our target of filling the stadiums to 80 percent capacity,” said Steffi Jones, president of the Women’s World Cup organizing committee.
Sweden-born U.S. Coach Pia Sundhage has tried to keep the floundering domestic league’s narrative on the back burner, instead focusing on the task at hand. Yet even she said: “You definitely sense it, but we don’t talk about it. It’s there. You don’t have to mention what is obvious.”
What isn’t clear is how the Americans will fare. Brazil trounced the United States, 4-0, in the 2007 World Cup semifinals, and even though the Americans rebounded to win the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, they don’t enter this tournament as the favorites. That distinction belongs to Germany, winner of the past two World Cups.
As a result, Sundhage has implemented a more systematic approach since becoming the first foreign-born coach in U.S. women’s soccer history in November 2007. Whereas the Americans once relied heavily on their athleticism with long balls to forwards and quick counterattacks, Sundhage has transformed the United States into a possession-oriented team that plays through its midfield.
But even as talk turns to soccer strategy, Wambach’s thoughts revolve around the sport’s future. She hopes the ride to the top of the women’s soccer summit goes just as smoothly as the gondola that gave her and her teammates a once-in-a-lifetime view from atop the Alps.
“We want this to be a fun and exciting team, not just for us, but as something people buy into all over the world,” Wambach said. “I’m very, very certain that our country will support us like they have in the past. If we win this thing, I think we’re gonna see some fireworks in the U.S.”