Has it been 12 years? Really?
It doesn’t seem that long ago that 90,185 fans roared in the Rose Bowl when Brandi Chastain made the game-winning penalty kick against China, then ripped off her jersey in a spontaneous sports bra-revealing celebration that would become the iconic image of the 1999 Women’s World Cup.
A TV audience of 40 million tuned in for that historic U.S. victory – better than the ratings for that year’s NBA Finals and Stanley Cup Finals. More than 500 journalists (including this one) were on hand for the occasion. Then-President Bill Clinton was in the stands, along with tens of thousands of young girls and boys in Mia Hamm jerseys, waving handmade “You Go, Girls!” posters at their sports heroines.
“The Girls of Summer,” they were nicknamed, and what a buzz they created. David Letterman had them on his show. They graced the covers of Time, Newsweek and People magazines. World Cup Barbie dolls flew off the shelves. The future for U.S. women’s soccer seemed so bright on that day, and a women’s pro league was launched soon thereafter.
But summer turned to fall, football kicked in, women’s soccer returned to the back of the nation’s sports sections, and the fledgling WUSA league didn’t make it.
Equally unfortunate, the U.S. women’s national team – once the heavy favorite in every tournament it entered – has not won another World Cup. The United States finished third in 2003 and 2007 and was the last team to qualify for the 2011 World Cup, which opens Sunday in Germany.
The United States finished behind Mexico and Canada (yes, Canada) in the regional qualifying tournament and needed a playoff to make this World Cup. The team lost an unprecedented three games in the past year, to Mexico, England and Sweden.
Heading into this World Cup, host Germany is favored, with Brazil not far behind. The U.S. team is the world’s top-ranked team according to FIFA, which bases its rankings on results from the previous four years. The United States is home of Women’s Professional Soccer, a second attempt at a pro league.
And the U.S. team won the 2008 Olympic gold medal and features talented players such as Abby Wambach, Christie Rampone and Hope Solo, all of whom play for the Boca Raton, Fla.-based WPS team, MagicJack.
But the players everyone is talking about this weekend are five-time FIFA Player of the Year Marta of Brazil, Birgit Prinz of Germany and 17-year-old phenom Yoreli Rincon of Colombia, who led her team to its first Women’s World Cup.
So, what happened? Has the U.S. team fallen, or has the rest of the world caught up? Probably a little of both.
Hamm, now an ESPN analyst, said on a conference call, “What I was feeling was hopefully that all of us, as players, as a federation, as coaches, that we don’t sit there and use our success to hinder our development. That we sit there and go, ‘Well, we’re ranked No. 1 in the world, we won a couple World Cups and a couple Olympics, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ We always need to be evolving.”
Former U.S. coach Tony DiCicco was more blunt.
“We’ve lost our way as far as our player development scheme, and we haven’t developed the same level of players that I think we enjoyed earlier,” he said.
“I love the fact that we want our women to win everything,” he added. “It reminds me of Brazilian men. We’re not happy unless we’re winning it, and we’re winning it with style and flair. And I think that’s awesome for the U.S. women to have that as their goal, and I think it’s also one of our strengths.”
The U.S. team’s success in 1999 broke down barriers in other countries, and now the Americans are paying the price.
“Many countries have dedicated more resources to the women’s game, which is phenomenal to see,” former U.S. star Julie Foudy said. “Teams are getting better. The field is getting larger and deeper. When we were playing, we and the Europeans were largely the show. So now, what you’re seeing is other countries are catching up.”