RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight: The U.S. women’s soccer team sets its sights on a World Cup victory this weekend.
Hari Sreenivasan has that story.
HARI SREENIVASAN: It has been a dozen years since American women won the Cup and captured national attention. But, on Sunday afternoon, the U.S. will try to recapture the title and become the first women’s team to win three World Cups.
It’s been a tougher and more competitive road this time. The U.S. lost a game in the opening round, than stunned Brazil in an epic quarterfinal match by tying the score in the 122 minute with a header by Abby Wambach. That match also included an impressive performance from goalkeeper Hope Solo.
Earlier this week, they knocked out France with another late goal by Wambach. Now they face a fast team from Japan playing in its first Cup final.
Christine Brennan has been covering the Cup in Germany for USA Today and ABC. She joins us from England, where she is covering the British Open in between matches.
So, for folks who haven’t been watching all the games, tell us a bit about this team. How did they get here?
CHRISTINE BRENNAN, USA Today: It’s — it’s been a circuitous route for the U.S. team. Normally, we think the U.S. is just going to win everything in women’s soccer, Hari, but it has been a bit different this year.
Almost didn’t qualify. They lost to Mexico in qualifying, had to do a home-and-home series against Italy to be the last team to get into the World Cup. But, even so, the U.S. is ranked number one in the world, so a little confusion, because it was a difficult road to get into the tournament.
But the U.S. throughout has been ranked number one. And that goes back to being the gold medalist from the Olympics in 2008, among other things.
HARI SREENIVASAN: The team also seems to mention the number 21, that it isn’t just about the starting squad, but that the bench has contributed some significant athletic performances as well.
CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Oh, absolutely.
And Megan Rapinoe is that person, I think, as much as anyone. When you think of the Brazil game and Abby Wambach’s header at the very last seconds, the team is basically eliminated. It’s 30 seconds away and it is over, and the U.S. is out of the World Cup.
And Megan Rapinoe is the one who sent that incredible cross, that laser, right to Abby Wambach’s head, and that lightning bolt of a header by Wambach, and that went in. So, there have been several players that have come off the bench and performed very well.
The coach, Pia Sundhage, is Swedish. She’s not an American. And she has, I think, done a terrific job, maybe more than any other American coach ever in the history of U.S. women’s soccer, to make this a team, even though there clearly are some superstars. It’s all about all of them on there. And I think you are seeing that, especially with Rapinoe. She is the personification of that.
HARI SREENIVASAN: You wrote about this in your column, but it is interesting that the storylines are about the athleticism, and less about the fact that it is a women’s team and the World Cup.
CHRISTINE BRENNAN: That is exactly right.
If you consider how we have looked at women’s sports in the past, especially the 1999 Women’s World Cup, the Rose Bowl filled to capacity, 40 million Americans watching, they got on the cover of “TIME,” “Newsweek,” “People,” and “Sports Illustrated” the same week after they won the World Cup in ’99. And that is the only story, news story ever to hit all four covers in the same week.
That was cultural. That was about Title IX coming of age, Americans falling in love with the girl next door, and falling in love with what we have created with Title IX, I think.
This is that, always. There is always that part of that. But I think it’s more about the athletic feats. I don’t think we would be talking about this today if it weren’t for that Brazil goal, the goal against Brazil by Abby Wambach, and just the awe-inspiring moment that we saw.
And it’s the way we talk about men sports — well, now one of the rare times really we are talking about women’s sports, and we’re actually talking about the athletic achievement. We’re talking about sports. And I think that’s really good for women’s sports. The idea that these couple goals that have really electrified the nation, that is the story, not so much the cultural aspects of this one.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Tell us a bit more about the team that they are facing. The Japanese are also playing their hearts out. I have heard it is very emotional for them, that they are using the natural disasters of the earthquake and tsunami as motivators.
CHRISTINE BRENNAN: That’s right, Hari.
Japan of course has gone through so much since March. And I think that all their athletes in any sport have been talking about it and thinking about it. The motivation for this team has been simply showing video of some of the horror after the earthquake and the tsunami, that they sent them out from the locker room for one game just after showing video.
And Japan is — its first final, so talk about parity in women’s sports and things getting better and more athletic excellence throughout the world of women sports. Japan, I think, is very much an example of that, never before in a final of the Women’s Worlds Cup.
And they are organized, they are aggressive, and they will pass the ball and try to keep it. It is a possession-oriented game for Japan. And the U.S. of course is going to be trying to go to Abby Wambach, who is quite a bit taller than the Japanese players.
But this is a story not only of athletic success for Japan, but also of course for the nation and the sense of healing after the March events.
HARI SREENIVASAN: If they win Sunday, the U.S. women would become the first team to win the World Cup three times, after taking titles in 1991 and 1999. But what is this going to do for women’s soccer?
Because some of the women that are in this game today grew up watching that team from ’99.
CHRISTINE BRENNAN: I think what we have seen from ’99, and now 12 years later, 2011, is that this is a sport that of course is extremely popular in the United States, especially on the participation side. Drive by any field and you will see little girls and little boys playing soccer.
The nation has not embraced it as a spectator sport as much. But, of course, this is really a little bit about soccer and a lot about nationalism and about, whether it’s tiddlywinks or soccer, Americans want to see Americans win. So, I think that is what we’re rallying — a lot of people are rallying around.
What does it do in the future? There is a professional league. There has been one after the ’99 success. That league folded after three years. It went through $100 million in three years and folded. Then a new league came up a couple years ago, and it is really struggling in these economic times.
Will these moments, will this World Cup then sell more tickets for women’s professional soccer? I’m not so sure. I think that what you see internationally in these kind of Olympic or World Cup events, I’m not so sure that people then, when the athletes scatter, do they want to go watch Hope Solo and Abby Wambach with the Magic Jack of Boca Raton playing against Boston or some other teams with some of the other World Cup players.
That hasn’t been shown or proven to be the case. But, as a one-off stand-alone, this is a magnificent moment for women’s sports.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Christine Brennan, thanks so much for your time.
CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Hari, thank you.