Saturday, September 01, 2007

Women’s World Cup Team Looks Back and Looks Ahead

Sports of The Times
September 2, 2007

Abby Wambach knows how much she owes the ’91ers, the self-styled old ladies who built women’s soccer in the United States. She starts with the car she drives and the home where she lives.

“They were my source of income,” Wambach said recently about the pioneers of her sport. “I want to say to them directly, ‘You guys did good.’ ”

Wambach, a bruising striker, plans to say exactly that to Kristine Lilly, the last member of that fabled 1991 team still in uniform, when they take the field for the FIFA Women’s World Cup in China, which begins in a week.

Those ’91ers became one of the greatest national teams the United States has ever fielded, winning that first World Cup in China. In talent and charisma and results, they were the equivalent of the 1992 Dream Team of men’s basketball.

But Jordan and Bird and Magic merely upgraded a popular sport, whereas the ’91ers seemed to be building a dynasty. Only it did not happen.

Instead, the fuss over Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy and the rest has left a rosy glow in the darkening sky as the United States prepares to play in this World Cup, literally in the middle of the night back home. To make matters worse, the professional league that began in 2001 did not make it past the third year.

“The Greatest Team You’ve Never Heard Of,” that’s how the media guide describes this year’s team. No matter how well the United States does over there, it will never match the excitement in the Rose Bowl on July 10, 1999, when Lilly stopped a Chinese shot with her head, Briana Scurry defended the goal during the shootout, and Brandi Chastain scored the winning penalty kick and promptly pulled off her jersey to reveal a sports bra more substantial than a lot of outfits seen around Manhattan, her gesture quickly becoming the symbol of that dashing squad.

“Unfortunately, people don’t know our team,” said Kate Markgraf, a leader of this squad who also played in that final.

“They call it the Mia Factor,” said Wambach, 27, who was not on that 1999 team. Wambach adores Hamm, who tutored her when they were teammates with Washington in the first year of the overly ambitious Women’s United Soccer Association.

Wambach, however, feels that the news media and the marketing people often seemed to “focus all your attention on one person. With Mia, it was difficult to know the other faces.”

And therein lies the paradox. Hamm was one of the most reluctant American superstars, displaying a genuine deer-in-the-headlights look when facing the hordes of reporters. She had an ego, of course, but it functioned best on the field, accompanied by sharp elbows and opportunistic feet. (Hamm may not have been the best American player; I would pick Michelle Akers, stalking some hapless opponent who temporarily possessed the ball.)

The news media and public helped create Hamm’s mystique, but now she is a retired mother of twins. Her absence seems linked with the end of that era, as indicated by the tiny corps of seven American news media outlets traveling to China to cover this World Cup.

Have women’s sports been downgraded in a time of news media austerity? Or is this World Cup, on the other side of the globe, running smack into the first month of American football? Probably both.

China was supposed to be the host in 2003, but the tournament was shifted to the United States because of the SARS epidemic there.

With little preparation time, and overlapping with baseball and football in early autumn, the 2003 Women’s World Cup did not match 1999 in any way, as the United States finished third.

Also, the W.U.S.A. folded, a victim of its own grandiosity, although it served a purpose by developing Wambach and Shannon Boxx, two mainstays of the current team.

“Anytime a game is not being played, it limits visibility,” Markgraf said. “Or course, with the league, we’d be much farther along. But that didn’t happen.”

She hopes that the energy from this World Cup and the 2008 Olympics in Beijing will be a stimulus for a proposed league to begin play in April 2009.

Right now, the women are in Shanghai, training for their first game against North Korea in Chengdu on Sept. 11, at 5 a.m. here, televised on ESPN or ESPN2. The players are thankful to their federation for financing the year-round program that got them to China.

“U.S. soccer puts us in an environment to play,” Wambach said. “All of us are excited about ’09. It gets kind of hard kicking each other in practice.”

The 5-foot-11 Wambach is not shy about muscling opponents. If she had come along a few years earlier, she would have been a force even on that great 1999 team.

Now she can only hope that Americans will discover her team in the post-midnight hours of the next few weeks.



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