Linda Robertson

Linda Robertson: Burden on U.S. women to boost soccer’s profile

Christie Rampone,Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd answer questions during the United States Women's World Cup Media Day at Marriott Marquis Hotel on May 27, 2015 in New York City.
Christie Rampone,Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd answer questions during the United States Women's World Cup Media Day at Marriott Marquis Hotel on May 27, 2015 in New York City. Getty Images

The U.S. women’s national soccer team has not won a World Cup since 1999, a fact that is difficult to reconcile with the reputation of the country assumed to be best on the planet in women’s soccer and women’s sports.

“Every time we go into an event, we’re like the Brazilian men’s team,” Tony DiCicco, coach of the 1999 Cup champions, said in anticipation of the tournament that begins Saturday in Canada. “We can’t just win. We have to win with dominance and flair and style. The only thing this team is thinking of is standing on top of the podium.”

Although they have won three Olympic gold medals, it has been 16 years since the U.S. women captured the Cup. Remember 1999? That was the summer of love for Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett. That’s when Brandi Chastain made the cover of Sports Illustrated by ripping off her jersey in what was the perfect dawn-of-a-new-century feminist statement: Women had come a long way from burning bras in protest of the constriction of their bodies to wearing sports bras in celebration of their bodies.

Even David Letterman was enamored of America’s sweethearts. Soccer moms and dads and their girls could point to the U.S. triumph as the culmination of the female soccer revolution.

But those squealing 12-year-olds who grew up with Mia posters on their bedroom walls are working women now. Time to reassess. Germany has won two World Cups since 1999. In 2011, the United States lost to Japan after blowing a 2-1 lead with three minutes to play. Japan won the penalty shootout.

And, by the way, the wage gap between men and women hasn’t closed, we still haven’t elected a female president and Kim Kardashian’s 15 minutes extended to years.

Plus, women’s pro soccer has not found a foothold, outgoing FIFA president Sepp Blatter suggested the women’s game would be more popular if only the players wore tighter shorts, and a sexual discrimination lawsuit by players against World Cup organizers failed to reverse the decision to play this Cup on artificial turf, which clearly demonstrates second-class treatment and expeditious indifference toward the welfare of the athletes.

All of which leaves the U.S. team with quite a burden: Win and be heroines of gender equity. Reclaim the Cup and the momentum for your sisters at home and around the globe.

Stiff competition

What could Alex Morgan do to top Chastain’s indelible moment in the sun? First, she and her teammates have to prove they are No.1 again even though the field, expanded to 24, is more competitive than ever.

“That expectation exists because no one has put more money, resources, focus and research into soccer than the U.S.,” said former U.S. men’s team player Alexi Lalas, an analyst for Fox Sports. “If you’re a U.S. fan, you expect to win it all. Anything less — eh — maybe you could consider it a failure.”

The Americans accept the pressure. The four-week summer showcase is their chance to forge their own identity, starting with Group play against Australia in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on Monday. The final is July 5 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Germany, France, Japan, Brazil, Canada and Sweden are contenders.

For Abby Wambach, 35, it’s the last shot at a Cup. She’s still a 5-11 scoring force. All four of her goals during the 2011 World Cup were headed into the net.

Defender Christie Rampone is the only veteran left from the 1999 team. The mother of two will turn 40 on June 24. Shannon Boxx, 37, and Carli Lloyd, 32, are other stalwarts seeking Cup redemption.

“It’s reminiscent of the 2004 Olympics when Mia, Joy, Julie and Kristine said it would be their last,” former team member Angela Hucles said. “You really want to win it for those players.”

Solo returns

For goalkeeper Hope Solo, 33, a Cup title would validate a career muddied by self-destructive decisions and a polarizing personality. At the 2007 Cup, she didn’t hesitate to call her benching in the 4-0 semifinal loss to Brazil “the wrong decision. There’s no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves.”

She was right but was blackballed by coach and teammates. Last year, she was arrested for domestic violence after a fight with her nephew and half sister; the case was dismissed. Earlier this year she was suspended for 30 days after her husband was arrested for drunk driving at the wheel of a U.S. Soccer van.

“Hope is a complicated situation,” DiCicco said. “She’s the best goalkeeper in the world, and if the U.S. wins, she’s the best goalkeeper ever. Hope lost her way, but since she’s been back she’s been a model teammate, model citizen.”

Morgan is the photogenic star, a lethal finisher, but a lingering knee injury means she will have to play her way into shape. Her absence has allowed Sydney Leroux to excel but left the midfield in a dither. Coach Jill Ellis is still sorting it out.

Aside from lifting the Cup and uplifting womankind, the U.S. women are expected to be better than the U.S. men were during the 2014 World Cup in spurring the development and image of American soccer.

“Don’t worry,” Wambach said after a 0-0 prep game against South Korea. “We’re cool.”

They are used to multitasking.

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