The voice of America is coming in loud and clear at last. Midfielder Julie Foudy, the U.S. women's soccer team's de facto spokesperson, has long been the victim of poor reception, but with the start this Saturday of the third Women's World Cup in eight venues across the country, the masses are finally tuning her in—albeit a decade after the American women started beating the shin guards off the rest of the world. "I used to say we were the best-kept secret in sports after we won the 1991 World Cup," says Foudy. "Now people are like, 'Oh, my god, you guys are so good.' Oh, yeah? Where have you been the last 10 years? We've always been this good."
So say howdy to Foudy, co-captain and team comedian, who will quarterback the U.S. offense and almost certainly be the life of this three-week party. Here's a 28-year-old woman who calls her parents Slim Jim and Fruity Judy. Who can excel for ESPN as a soccer analyst one day and for the national team the next. Who can throw elbows with the toughest opponents and blow kisses as a former high school homecoming queen. Who can win an Olympic gold medal and one month later nearly quit the sport to enter med school. Who can sign a deal to endorse a product and then visit a remote corner of Asia to observe the conditions under which it's made. In other words, as Foudy steers the tournament-favorite U.S. toward the World Cup final on July 10 at the Rose Bowl, chances are she'll win the nation's hearts, to say nothing of your minds. Which is what you'd expect, naturally, from the Voice of America.
Foudy is a delightful mix of slapstick and sincerity. "Let's just say there's never a dull moment with Jules," says defender Carla Overbeck, the butt of innumerable Foudy jokes since posing in a leopard-skin dress for a magazine before the 1996 Olympics. "She's a total dork," says midfielder Kristine Lilly, "but at the same time, a big aspect of her leadership is how she trains. She's always saying, 'Come on, let's do one more.' "
On the field Foudy bellows like a hog caller to keep her teammates organized. Off the field she's nothing less than the U.S.'s emcee. It's not uncommon at the team's manifold public appearances for the Americans' less gregarious star, forward Mia Hamm, to nudge Foudy and say, "Jules, you do it." So Foudy talks and sells, sells and talks, yet rarely mentions herself. "When we went to China in '91 [for the World Cup], she was so humble I didn't even know she was a starter," says Slim Jim, a sales rep in Laguna Nigel, Calif. "I wasn't sure if I'd see her play, and she ended up playing every minute of every game."
The path from anonymity to latter-day Mike Eruzione has taken Foudy to some out-of-the-way places—Varna, Bulgaria; Sialkot, Pakistan; Bristol, Conn.—but her first stop was Mission Viejo, the conservative Southern California suburb that was progressive enough to offer soccer programs for girls in the 1970s. As a second-grader Julie joined a select traveling team called, she grudgingly admits, the Soccerettes. "How cheez is that?" says Foudy, who to this day, and to her teammates' chagrin, will croon the first line of the Soccerettes fight song (N-n-n-nobody messes with the green machine!) whenever she signs autographs for girls in green uniforms.
Foudy stayed with the Soccerettes for 10 years while also becoming a two-time All-America at Mission Viejo High, until a team with a bit more prestige came calling in 1987. Anson Dorrance, the U.S. coach at the time, played a hunch, leaving several veterans off his roster for a trip to China and naming four heralded rookies instead: Foudy, 16; Hamm, 15; Lilly, 16; and defender Joy Biefield (now Fawcett), 19. It would prove to be the most important move in U.S. women's soccer history. Nearly 12 years later those four, plus midfielder Michelle Akers and defenders Overbeck and Brandi Chastain, form the veteran backbone of the American team. But in '87 Foudy initially balked at going to China. "I'd been traveling all summer with the youth national team," she recalls. "I just wanted to go home." A dumbstruck Dorrance set her straight. "This is the national team, Julie," he said. "Do you know what we're talking about?"
Foudy made the trip, and even though she rode the bench she never returned to the youth team. Four years later, when she helped the U.S. win the inaugural Women's World Cup, Foudy and her teammates reached the pinnacle of their sport. More than 65,000 spectators, including Pelé and a crush of international media, were on hand in Guangzhou for the Americans' 2-1 win over Norway in the championship game. Then the team returned triumphantly home to...a ticker-tape parade? Appearances on Carson and Oprah? Nope. In the U.S. there was all the excitement of a 2 a.m. test pattern. "It was weird—we won the World Cup, but then I had to come back to school and take exams," says Foudy, who was a Stanford junior. "All my professors were like, 'So what? Here's your final.' "
Acceptance has been achingly slow to arrive. As recently as the 1996 Summer Olympics, NBC shoehorned only 10 taped minutes of women's soccer between countless hours of plausibly live gymnastics. The U.S. beat China 2-1 in front of a crowd of 76,481 at the University of Georgia's Sanford Stadium, and these days complete videotapes of the American women's finest hour circulate like samizdat through the soccer community.
Women's soccer, it seemed, was doomed to third-class status by media bigwigs until January 1998, when ABC announced that all 32 World Cup '99 games would be televised nationally on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2. Then last year ESPN, in search of a soccer commentator, contacted Foudy out of the blue and asked her to do studio analysis for the men's World Cup. Little did the network know that as a child, Foudy had swooned over Howard Cosell while watching Monday Night Football. For three months Foudy spent four hours a day researching the intricacies of 32 teams and familiarizing herself with 704 names, studying so much that U.S. women's coach Tony DiCicco finally told her to stop.
After a rough TV debut ("Honey, you were a little stiff," Fruity Judy told her, "but you were great!"), Foudy turned out to be a natural. Nearly every Baggio and Di Biagio rolled flawlessly off her tongue, and even when she screwed up, she screwed up with aplomb. During one broadcast she was describing "the Colombian goalkeeper, Mmmm.... Mmmm...." In an instant she turned to her partner, Dave Revsine, and said, "Dave, help me out here!"