Michelle Kaufman

Michelle Kaufman: Women’s soccer goes from novelty to must-see

United States' Abby Wambach (20) celebrates her team's win with goal keeper Hope Solo following the second half of a FIFA Women's World Cup soccer match, Tuesday, June 16, 2015 in Vancouver, New Brunswick, Canada
United States' Abby Wambach (20) celebrates her team's win with goal keeper Hope Solo following the second half of a FIFA Women's World Cup soccer match, Tuesday, June 16, 2015 in Vancouver, New Brunswick, Canada The Canadian Press via AP

How refreshing that the overriding narrative of the Women’s World Cup is no longer: “Gee, isn’t it great that stadiums are filling up for a women’s sport?” or “Gee, it’s amazing how many little girls are playing soccer,” or “Gee, some of those ponytailed players are hot.”

Women’s soccer has evolved to a point where U.S. fans are debating who should start at forward, whether short or long corner kicks are more effective (my vote is long!), and whether U.S. Soccer punished goalkeeper Hope Solo enough following her brushes with the law.

The sport has matured to a point – at least in this country and Canada – where it was assumed that 50,000-plus fans would show up to see Team USA against Nigeria in a World Cup group game. Fans have come to expect (rather than hope) that Women’s World Cup matches will be televised. It hardly comes as a surprise anymore that of the 3.9 million youth playing soccer in the United States, 1.6 million of them are girls.

There were 318 women’s college teams in 1991, the year of the first Women’s World Cup. There are now 1,183.

We’ve reached a point where my 15-year-old soccer-playing daughter follows members of the women’s national team on Twitter and Instagram and connected with friends — both male and female — on social media Tuesday night when Abby Wambach scored the winning goal against Nigeria.

“aaaabbbbbbbyyyyyy!!’’ she posted on Twitter, the same way kids do when LeBron James or Stephen Curry make huge shots in the NBA Finals.

My daughter was in my belly when I covered the 1999 Women’s World Cup final, that magical day when 93,000 fans packed the Rose Bowl and saw the U.S. beat China, and then witnessed Brandi Chastain’s iconic sports bra-revealing celebration.

Together, we have watched the sport grow up.

American star forward Alex Morgan has 1.75 million followers on Twitter. Solo has 894,000. Wambach has 477,000, and gutsy midfielder Megan Rapinoe has 298,000.

Fox’s coverage of the U.S.-Nigeria match drew an overnight rating of five million, which is highest ever on U.S. television for a group match and 285 percent higher than four years ago. And it was going up against Game 6 of the NBA Finals, which drew 15.9 million. Last Friday, the U.S. vs. Sweden 0-0 game drew 4.49 million, and a day later Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals drew 5.26 million.

But the most obvious evidence that the Women’s World Cup has become a “real” big-time sporting event in this country is the pressure on the American team to win it all.

Long gone are the days of just saying, “Good try, gals. Go U-S-A!”

This U.S. team hasn’t won since 1999, despite its heavily-marketed players, and fans are getting impatient. Anything less than a championship trophy on July 5 will be considered a failure. Team USA will have to play better than it has so far to go all the way.

Although the U.S. won the toughest group in the tournament, the score was just 1-0 against a Nigerian team that was a player down for the final 21 minutes. Yes, Wambach scored, but it was off a corner kick. No U.S. forward has scored in the run of play through three matches (Christen Press’ goal against Australia was from midfield position).

The attack improved greatly with Wambach and Morgan at forward. Morgan is coming off a knee injury and had not started before the Nigeria game.

Wambach started against Australia, but not against Sweden. The forward duo of Sydney Leroux and Press lacked chemistry, so coach Jill Ellis opted to go with Wambach-Morgan against Nigeria and their presence made a big difference.

Defensively, the Americans have been strong, going 243 minutes without allowing a goal. Solo has made big saves, center backs Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston have chased down and frustrated opponents, and tenacious Meghan Klingenberg has played much bigger than her 5-2 frame.

By winning their group, the Americans got an easier road to the semifinals, where they may have to face co-favorite Germany, which won back-to-back titles in 2003 and 2007. In the Round of 16, Team USA will play Colombia in Edmonton at 8 p.m. EDT Monday, then would face the China-Cameroon winner in the quarterfinal.

This U.S. team certainly has the talent to win the title. Its players have finally emerged from the shadows of 1999 stars Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Michelle Akers, Kristine Lilly and Chastain. Now, it’s time to prove they can fulfill the big-time expectations.

Round of 16

United States vs. Colombia, 8 p.m. Monday, FS1