There's no debating the gender of America's most avid soccer
fans. They're girls. Eight-year-old girls. After the U.S. women's
team defeated Argentina 8-1 in Fullerton, Calif., in April, 2,000
pigtailed hooligans stampeded into a walkway next to the field.
They had one thing on their mindsautographsand soon there
wasn't enough space for them all. The rush toward the railing
separating fans and players became a crush. Fearing what could
have turned into this country's first soccer riot, the team's
handlers whisked the players away. "It was scary," says
midfielder Julie Foudy. "Kids were getting trampled. We had to
get out of there."
A curious thing is happening in women's soccer. Despite a series
of obstacleslimited TV exposure, no professional league and,
until last week, no major titles since the '96 Olympicsthe U.S.
women have turned into the Beatles, circa 1964, for the distaff
bubblegum set. How have they done it? Mainly by cozying up to the
7.1 million American females (5.7 million of whom are
schoolgirls) who play the game. "We do a lot of appearances and
clinics, and we always stay after games and sign autographs,"
said forward Mia Hamm before wading into a preteen throng at the
Goodwill Games in Uniondale, N.Y., last Saturday. "It gives us a
personal connection with the fans. The team takes that very
Kick start Hamm & Co. booted Denmark on their way to the Goodwill
It helps when you win. Two years after taking the gold medal in
Atlanta, the U.S. is still the best team in the world, a position
it solidified on Monday with a 2-0 victory (both goals scored by
Hamm) over China to win the Goodwill Games championship. With a
16-1-2 record in '98, the Americans are the odds-on favorites to
win their second Women's World Cup when it takes place in the
U.S. next summer.
Their continued success is all the more impressive considering
that their main rivalsBrazil, China, Germany and Norwayhave the
benefit of their own pro leagues. Not that the U.S. hasn't tried
to follow suit. A league called the National Soccer Alliance had
planned to kick off in April of this year, but it was never
endorsed by U.S. Soccer, the sport's domestic governing body,
which didn't think that the NSA had the necessary financial and
organizational infrastructure. Frustrated, the league's investors
pulled out last December, and with them went any hope of play in
'98. "We've got to make sure we do it right," says U.S. Soccer
president Alan Rothenberg. "If it was tough to get a men's league
running, it will probably be as difficult or more difficult to
get a women's league going."
Rothenberg would like to see a women's pro league start in 2001,
a year after the Sydney Olympics. But a delay has two unhealthy
side effects. First, it leaves U.S. players on their own for
training when they aren't playing for or working out with the
national team. (None of the team's starters play in a league
abroad.) Midfielder Kristine Lilly, for example, will hone her
skills this fall with a high school boys' team in suburban
Chicago. Also, without a league, there is no feeder system to
replace today's U.S. team stars in the next century. "Without a
league we're not as competitive," says Foudy. "Potential
candidates for the national team fall through the cracks." U.S.
coach Tony DiCicco is more direct: "If we don't get a league
going by 2001, it could be a death sentence for us."
That doomsday scenario is still a ways off. For now the U.S.
relies on the same foundation it had in Atlanta: six players
(Foudy, Hamm, Lilly, midfielder Michelle Akers and defenders Joy
Fawcett and Carla Overbeck) who have each made more than 100
national-team appearances. All six plan to play at least through
World Cup '99, which bills itself as the biggest women's sporting
event ever (in expected attendance and TV viewers). All but five
of the 32 games will be televised live in the U.S., and
tournament organizers hope to sell out the Rose Bowl for the
final. "We've seen women's basketball make a big hit," says
Lilly. "Women's soccer is going to be next."
Issue date: August 3, 1998