The U.S. women roll toward the World Cup, winning fans and games
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 minds--autographs--and
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 obstacles--limited TV exposure, no professional league and,
until last week, no major titles since the '96 Olympics--the
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
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 rivals--Brazil, China, Germany and Norway--have
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."
MLS Scoring Leader
WITH UNITED, LASSITER STANDS
D.C. United coach Bruce Arena isn't known as a clairvoyant, but
maybe he should be. When D.C. traded Roy Wegerle to Tampa Bay
for striker Roy Lassiter on April 27, Lassiter was enduring a
nightmare season. Not only had he been dumped from the national
team, but he also hadn't scored in the Mutiny's first six games.
That skid made Arena's first words to Lassiter when he welcomed
him to Washington seem comically overblown: "Here's where you're
going to get your 30 goals."
Since then Lassiter has been transformed into Roy-naldo. He
picked up goal No. 1 in his first game with United, and by
Sunday he had scored 15 times in 16 games with D.C. to take the
lead in the MLS scoring race. Meanwhile, United has played its
best soccer of the season, building a 13-point cushion in the
Eastern Conference at week's end while pursuing a third straight
Blessed with turf-churning acceleration that helps him beat
defenders to open spots, Lassiter doesn't admit to being
anything other than a scoring savant. "I don't think people
should complicate their positions," he says. "Forwards are there
to score goals." For that reason he has always needed a talented
playmaker to serve him the ball. Two years ago in Tampa Bay,
Lassiter led MLS with 27 goals thanks mainly to the deft passing
touch of Carlos Valderrama. But last November, Valderrama was
sent to Miami, and Lassiter regained his scoring ability only
when he was paired with United's Bolivian midfield magician,
"Marco and I communicate pretty well," says Lassiter, who speaks
fluent Spanish, a benefit of playing professionally in Costa
Rica from 1992 to '95. During games Lassiter and Etcheverry can
be heard yapping en espanol. According to Arena, that's only one
of the things that make Lassiter a perfect fit with D.C.'s
multilingual team, to say nothing of the city itself. Says
Arena, "Here you have a black American born in Washington, D.C.,
who comes back and happens to be fluent in Spanish. Plus he's
been scoring goals. If we had to write a job description for a
forward to match up with us, he'd fit the bill."
MILUTINOVIC AND PARREIRA TOP LIST
The list of candidates to become the next U.S. men's coach is
narrowing. A U.S. Soccer official told SI last week that Bora
Milutinovic and Carlos Alberto Parreira are cofavorites for the
job. Milutinovic coached the U.S. World Cup team in '94, while
Parreira led Brazil to the '94 World Cup title. The official
said that Bruce Arena and former Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz
are "long shots," as is the only other candidate, former
Colombian coach Francisco Maturana. A decision is expected in
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Kick start Hamm & Co. booted Denmark on their way to the Goodwill Games title. [Mia Hamm near opponent in soccer game]
Q & A
The U.S. may have won the '96 Olympic gold medal in women's
soccer, but Norway still holds the World Cup and has a winning
record (11-9-1) against America's finest. With that in mind, we
looked for a voice of authority on the sport in Scandinavia. Who
better than the leading scorer in Atlanta and a former cop,
Norwegian captain Linda Medalen?
Q: Is women's soccer more popular in Norway than, say,
cross-country skiing or speed skating?
A: For women it's probably the second-most-important sport.
Q: What's the first?
A: Team handball. It's very big in Europe.
Q: People here say Mia Hamm is the best player in the world. Who
do you think is the best?
A: In 1991 there was no doubt that Michelle Akers was the best.
But now I can't say there is any player who is always the best.
We have a great forward on our team named Marianne Pettersen. Mia
Hamm is great, too, but I don't see her play every day.
Q: Can I call you the Mia Hamm of Norway?
A: (Long pause) I guess so.
Q: Do you do shampoo ads like she does?
A: I do commercials for potato chips.
Q: Potato chips aren't very healthy, Linda.
A: No, but they're a sponsor.