U.S. women's soccer team forging new legacy
By KARA YORIO RECORD COLUMNIST | The Record
It’s time for another moment.
It has been 16 years since American soccer player Brandi Chastain scored on a penalty kick and famously ripped off her shirt and slid on her knees across the Rose Bowl grass in celebration of the team’s World Cup victory. While the United States has remained an international powerhouse in women’s soccer — winning three of the last four Olympic gold medals — they haven’t won this prestigious international tournament since.
Tonight’s World Cup final rematch against defending champion Japan is the chance to give American fans a new moment, a new memory, another reason to celebrate on this Fourth of July weekend. After lifetimes of dedication and four years carrying around the heartbreaking 2011 loss to Japan, it’s time for these women — including the four New Jersey players on the roster — to wrap themselves in a huge American flag and take a victory lap around the field in Vancouver. It’s the perfect day for the country to get caught up in a rare non-partisan moment and root together across all of the political, racial and cultural lines that so fiercely divide this indivisible nation.
Let’s not weigh down this day with talk about whether this is the moment women’s soccer hits the big time. We’ve had that discussion. We’re tired of that discussion. It will never be the NFL and who cares? Who wants it to be?
There is something more appealing about the purity of this “smaller” game of football here in the U.S. and the drive it takes to continue training and competing without the promise of a big contract or huge endorsement deal. These women battle on and off the field for what they believe is fair, what they feel they have earned. This team raised hell — and even filed a lawsuit — calling out FIFA, the soccer governing body, for sexism with the use of artificial turf instead of real grass in this tournament. No men’s or women’s World Cup, or any major international tournament, had ever been played on anything but grass for good reason. The artificial surface is more difficult on the players’ legs, causes painful abrasions when they slide, is believed to create a bigger likelihood of concussions and changes the very game itself because of the way the ball bounces and moves. The U.S. players — and many others — believe that FIFA would never let the men play on turf.
They lost the fight but at least they spoke out. Like the women who came before them, these players proudly carry a torch for the next generation, more and more of whom show up in jerseys to these games each time around.
This night, this game, doesn’t need to give us the moment that puts women’s soccer on the map in the United States in a way that prompts daily discussion on sports talk radio. These 90-plus minutes can instead bring the moments that inspire all young soccer players to practice harder and dream bigger and all female athletes to proudly push themselves further.
Since the World Cup began, this team has played hard, if not with flair, supporting each other even as they struggled to gel and generate offense, putting fans through one nail-biter after another. Led by former Rutgers player and Delran native Carli Lloyd, they have come through when it mattered.
Lloyd is not the only Garden State player on the roster, which includes Christie Rampone, as well as Tobin Heath and Heather O’Reilly. They are four of 11 players from the 2011 World Cup team who remember too well the painful loss to Japan when the U.S. gave up two late leads, then lost on penalty kicks. They brought that lingering and motivating feeling of opportunity lost to Canada.
During the nearly monthlong tournament, these women have captured the imagination of people around the country. The win over Germany was the most-watched men’s or women’s World Cup semifinal ever on American television. The 2-0 victory averaged 8.4 million viewers on Fox, the previous high was 5.9 million for the 2006 men’s semifinal between Germany and Italy, according to Fox.
Fellow athletes and celebrities have checked in with their support, led by Tom Hanks, who may be the team’s biggest fan. But Hanks isn’t the only one. On a recent appearance on “The Daily Show,” Jon Hamm checked his Apple Watch when he got a text from screenwriter Robert Carlock about going to watch the game after the taping. Then Hamm and Jon Stewart talked about the semifinal game against Germany. Justin Timberlake, Ellen DeGeneres, Chris Pratt, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Dallas Mavericks all-star Dirk Nowitzki and members of the men’s national soccer team past and present are among those who have checked in on Twitter and other social media sites with cheers and support.
While this roster may not represent America’s ethnic melting pot, it is not without diversity. The team was together for a cultural and political moment important to many of its members. They played the quarterfinals against China after learning of the Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide. It was a powerful personal moment for longtime star Abby Wambach, who was married to Sarah Huffman in October in Hawaii, and Megan Rapinoe, an openly gay star on the team. The team planned a tribute to the high court had they taken a two-goal lead, but with the game tight, they kept to the business at hand.
And that’s fine. That’s how it should be. This should not be about their gender or their sexual orientation. It is about their play. That hasn’t been all great this tournament, but they are putting it together at just the right time with a belief that this is the year they finally win the World Cup again.
Going into this tournament, despite being the No. 2 seed, the U.S. team felt as if it had to prove itself after past World Cup disappointments. The players also wanted to win the first World Cup for Wambach, the world’s all-time leading goal scorer in international competition. To do that, they needed forward Alex Morgan to return to form while battling an injury and to survive the off-field firestorm that is goalie Hope Solo — the player who last year yelled at police officers during her husband’s drunken-driving arrest and was arrested herself and charged with domestic violence in an incident involving her nephew and half-sister. The case was dismissed, but prosecutors have filed an appeal. She was suspended from the team for 30 days but was reinstated for the World Cup. Her presence invites cynicism into this otherwise feel-good game.
So far, though, Solo has been overshadowed. The big story of this tournament for the American side has been Lloyd, who has become the on-field leader and come up with the clutch goals on a team that struggles to create offensively. Wearing the captain’s armband, she had a goal and an assist in the 2-0 semifinal victory over Germany and the lone goal in the 1-0 quarterfinal win against China. She has three goals in three games and has been the force that got this team to the final.
“It’s a dream come true,” Lloyd said on Fox following the semifinal victory over Germany. “This is what we train for. This is the blood, the sweat, the tears — everything. I know this was a great game, a great win, but my eyes are all on the final right now.”
And all eyes will be on her during this game. To beat Japan, they will need Lloyd to play big again and others to step up as well. They have a good chance to do it. As the sports cliché goes, offense wins games but defense wins championships. This U.S. team used that defense to beat the best offensive team in the tournament, Germany, and can now take the coveted gold trophy with one more win to end the 16-year drought.
The only remaining player from the 1999 victory is captain Christie Rampone, who was an inexperienced Christie Pearce from little Monmouth University. Today, she is a force as an unquestioned team leader — whether the Point Pleasant native is on the field or not. She turned 40 during this, her fifth World Cup, and her husband and two daughters will be there for today’s final, as they have been the entire tournament.
Before the tournament began, she wrote about how every question seemed to come back to her age.
“Society is still wrestling with the image of women in elite sports — to say nothing of the stigma of women’s age,” she wrote on theplayerstribune.com. “Just take a look at the culture of Hollywood for that one. What roles do ‘aging’ women get? (Though I’ll admit I haven’t seen a non-Disney movie in like a decade. I’m a mom.) But every four years, the popularity of the women’s game at the World Cup shows how more and more people care about the game — especially the young girls who wear our jerseys and hope to one day play at our level.”
The posters of Chastain and her famous teammates Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Michelle Akers and Kristine Lilly no longer adorn bedroom walls, the echo of those Pasadena cheers have long since disappeared. But that team and that game made this team possible. Lloyd, Wambach, Morgan and Rapinoe — to name just a key few — have all talked about how they were inspired to be who they are today thanks to the group affectionately known as “The ’99ers.”
Now it’s time to pay tribute to that team with a victory, to leave a legacy of their own that is not back-to-back World Cup Final losses, to kick-start the dreams of the next generation and to give the country a reason to stand together and cheer.