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Obscurity to popularity large leap for U.S. women


Thori Staples wasn't surprised when she heard the stories about the arrival of the U.S. women's national team after winning the 1991 World Championship in China.

After capturing the first major honor in world soccer, the team was greeted at the airport by . . . no one. There wasn't a huge welcoming rally. Not even one television camera or reporter.

What's surprising to Staples is how the sport has changed in four years. The national team is set to defend its title in Sweden today in a first-round game against China, and now it seems as if everyone knows about its success.

Players have been thrust into the public view with network television commercials, posters and videos. They have appeared on "The Late Show with David Letterman" and in Sports Illustrated.

This year's games will be carried on national television. ESPN2 will follow the team throughout the tournament, showing all its first-round, quarterfinal and semifinal games. ESPN will carry the final live.

The team also averaged 4,000 fans during this year's national spring tour, and spent hours signing T-shirts and programs before and after games.

"It's a little shocking," said Staples, 21, a defender from Joppatowne who made the team on May 5. "But I've seen it improving over the past few years. The world championship really put us on the map."

A first-team All-American from North Carolina State, Staples is considered one of the sport's fastest players. Staples is one of only four defenders on the squad, and should get some playing time because the team could play as many as six games in 13 days.

But the defense isn't the United States' signature.

It's the offense. The risk-taking and highly skilled attack attracts most fans.

And with the recognition came the endorsements.

When the team traveled to China four years ago, players had to put jobs on hold without any financial reward in return. Although players still have to make sacrifices, it is substantially easier to be a player this year.

The U.S. Soccer Federation arranged for the team to train full time from February to May at the Seminole County Sports Center in Florida. The players, who receive $2,000 to $3,000 a month, didn't have to hold down two jobs for the first time.

Nike, Budweiser and MasterCard sponsor the team, and individual players have major shoe endorsements. Carin Gabarra, who coaches at Navy, has a line of soccer apparel named after her coming out from Diadora.

"With the rapid growth of women's soccer in the United States, it was inevitable that we would attract the attention of soccer manufacturers," said Gabarra, 30, the MVP of the first world championships and the oldest player on the roster.

Gabarra starts on the attack with highly touted Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers. Using three instead of two forwards, the team continually attacks the goal.

The team outscored its four opponents, 36-1, in qualifying for this year's World Cup. This excitement likely has helped increase the number of women playing soccer.

According to the Soccer Industry Council of America, women's participation in soccer has increased by 15 percent over the past two years. The United States also placed a bid to hold the 1999 Women's World Championships.

This growth has made the United States into the powerhouse of women's soccer, and that's fine with the players.

"All the teams are gunning for us," Staples said. "I can see that now when we are playing against teams. But I wouldn't have it any other way."


What: Second FIFA Women's World Championship, with 12 teams competing, in Sweden

When: Today through June 18. In first round, U.S. team plays today vs. China, 4 p.m.; Thursday vs. Denmark, 4 p.m.; Saturday vs. Australia, 3 p.m.

TV: ESPN2 will carry all U.S. first-round games at times listed above. If Americans advance, ESPN2 will show them in quarterfinals June 13, 4 p.m., and semifinals June 15, 3 p.m. Championship game will be on ESPN June 18, 1 p.m.

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