Cup will kick women's soccer back into national spotlight

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - A rainstorm of biblical proportions had turned the soccer field at RFK Stadium into a slippery stew of mud Wednesday evening. The treacherous conditions did little to stop Washington Freedom scoring stars Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach from tackling any nearby Philadelphia Charge player, or from dribbling like madwomen through double teams, knee ligaments be damned.

In the slop, even with a sore knee, a midfielder as skilled and hungry as Hamm can't be knocked off her shark-attack mentality to drive to the net.

What a sight. The best in the business plying her trade.

This is what that core group of U.S. stars played for all those anonymous years. Not just a league of their own, but a showcase for their game, for the next generation of players and fans to understand: The women's game has come a long way, indeed.

Hamm, Julie Foudy, Michelle Akers (now retired but once the most dominant player ever in women's soccer), Kristine Lilly, Brandi Chastain, Joy Fawcett, Brianna Scurry and Shannon MacMillan are among a group of 20 that the Women's United Soccer Association calls "founding players." So committed are they to making the league viable, these players led a movement this season to accept healthy pay cuts to further guarantee the league's future. In other words, they're into it.

Why had it taken so long to finally see a live match of the WUSA, now in its third season? In a sports calendar crowded by all the usual suspects from the big behemoth leagues, it was easy to put the fledgling WUSA on the back burner.

Not now. The decision by FIFA to move the 2003 Women's World Cup from China to the United States because of the SARS outbreak has opened a new window on the women. FIFA and U.S. Soccer already have announced the schedule, with the U.S. women set to open Sept. 21 at RFK Stadium. On Thursday, FIFA will hold the draw for the 16-team tournament.

In 1999, in the third Women's World Cup, the U.S. women staved off China in that sold-out Rose Bowl penalty-kick thriller of a duel. We all have the images firmly etched in our collective sporting conscience. Goalkeeper Scurry guessing right, advancing to make that final stop. Chastain beating Chinese keeper Gao Hong to win the sudden-death shootout, 5-4, and unleash that shirtless, black bra celebration.

It has taken FIFA three years to ban shirtless celebration, as it did last week, but that brilliant soccer moment symbolized a turning point.

This time, the challenges and expectations for the Women's World Cup are different. Last time, organizers had four years to market and sell tickets - and sell they did. This one has two months, with games set for six American venues: Foxboro, Mass.; Philadelphia; Columbus, Ohio; Portland, Ore.; Carson City, Calif., and Washington.

Last time, the World Cup was scheduled in the summer, with only baseball in full swing. This time, the event will have to go up against baseball playoffs, the NFL and college football.

Last time, the U.S. team felt intense pressure to play well and win, since ticket sales, media coverage and the future pro league were at stake. This time, "founding players" like Hamm, who will soon retire, might find themselves the center of a farewell tour, with a public less willing to embrace the next, lesser-known top players.

Former U.S. coach Tony DiCicco is the WUSA commissioner. He says this World Cup could again surprise spectators as it will showcase 50 WUSA players whose pro league playing time has enhanced the skill level.

"It can be another special, important event," DiCicco said, adding: "I don't know if there is another China of 1999 in the draw. They were every bit our equal and we were lucky to come away with the win. I don't know if there's another Norway of 1995 and '96. That was a good team and I don't see that team [in this World Cup]. But other than Argentina, the overall level of play is vastly improved. There will be a lot less walkthroughs, more upsets. Top to bottom, the teams are better."

France has one of the world's best players in the WUSA's 2002 Most Valuable Player, Marinette Pichon. Germany has top-scoring Birgit Prinz. Brazil's stars Katia and Sissi are already familiar names.

"Can we duplicate 1999? Who knows? I'm optimistic," DiCicco said. "I think it will be very well attended. We have something we can point to [the 1999 World Cup]. I know what it was like in 1996 [at the Olympic tournament in Athens, Ga.]. It wasn't on television but everyone who was there knew how special it was."

The U.S. national team plays today against Brazil in New Orleans (3:55 p.m., ESPN.) It's the team's last international friendly before the World Cup starts.

U.S. coach April Heinrichs will use this match and the remaining WUSA matches to determine the U.S. World Cup squad. DiCicco said fans can expect the good ol' gals to anchor the team. They're still at the top of the game, but a few younger players want a chance to get on this grand stage.

Freedom goalkeeper Siri Mullinix, 25, was in the stands at the Rose Bowl on July 9, 1999. Fresh out of North Carolina that year, Mullinix just missed making the team. And while she played for the United States in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Mullinix wants nothing more than to win a spot over rejuvenated veteran Scurry.

"There were 95,000 people screaming. It was exciting and one day I said this is going to be me. Part of this World Cup is to take that next step for women's soccer," she said.

When it comes to the U.S. women and their international soccer ventures, it's usually well worth climbing on the bandwagon early.

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