Despite a driving rain and chilly temperatures at the Women's World Cup semifinal in Monchengladbach, Germany this week, the victory of the American team over the French sent rays of hope to serious and occasional soccer fans around the nation.
On Sunday, the American women will play the Japanese team for the World Cup championship. If the Americans are victorious, they will match the accomplishments of the 1999 team, which captured the nation's imagination with its dominant run through the tournament and its exciting final. That was the game when Brandi Chastain smashed a penalty kick past the Chinese goalkeeper and then peeled off her jersey and fell to her knees in fist-clenched celebration, resulting in both a wave of national euphoria about women's soccer and photographs of Ms. Chastain on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated. The Americans also won the women's title in 1991, but with defeats in the last two World Cup semi-finals, including a 4-0 drubbing by Brazil in 2007, women's soccer has never quite regained its 1999 cachet.
That may be changing now, thanks to a team that is playing with tremendous determination. Down by a goal in this year's quarter-final match against Brazil, a country that regards soccer as a national religion, Megan Rapinoe delivered a beautiful, long crossing pass to her towering teammate, Abby Wambach, who headed it into the net for a last-minute goal that sent the game into a penalty kick shootout. The Americans prevailed, thanks to a lunging save by the team's star goalkeeper,Hope Solo.
Against France, with the game tied 1-1 and the French women seemingly in control of the contest, the Americans showed resolve. Ms. Wambach again rose above the fray and headed a ball into the net. Alex Morgan, the youngest player on a veteran squad, added a smoothly executed third goal, and the American team was on its way to Frankfurt.
Although many American children grow up playing the game, America has not been a hotbed of soccer fans. After the surge of interest that follows each World Cup, some sports commentators speculate that our nation is at last on its way to embracing the game. So far, it does not appear that a whole lot of sustained hugging is going on. The men's World Cup championship game last summer between the Netherlands and victorious Spain did draw the largest-ever number of American television viewers, 24.3 million, for a World Cup match. It topped the previous high of 19.4 million viewers for an earlier round, when the United States lost to Ghana. However, this summer, the television ratings in America for the women's competition started off very low, garnering a Nielsen rating of .09 to 1.2. They more than doubled, to 2.6, or 3.89 million viewers, when the American women played Brazil. The ratings for the U.S.-France game, despite being played in the middle of the day on a Wednesday, only slightly trailed those for the Brazil game, which had been played on the weekend.
Whether it is trendy or not, true fans plan to be parked in front of a television Sunday afternoon for the match against Japan. Regardless of ratings, or America's on-again, off-again interest in soccer, this talented, dogged team of women is enthralling to watch. Come what may against a surprisingly formidable Japanese squad, the U.S. team has already proved that it never gives up and can never be counted out. Soccer may not be America's game, but there's nothing more American than that.