A big score, bigger step in new age

July 02, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

LANDOVER -- Hundreds of cameras flashed moments after the final whistle sounded, the crowd of 54,642 rising on this muggy, magical night. Several German players collapsed to the field in dejection. The American players sprinted toward each other, raising their arms in exultation, embracing.

It's a brave new world. It's a big new world. It's a world not just for fathers and sons, but mothers and daughters, a world that once seemed so implausible, but now is as real as the pain in Michelle Akers' shoulder or the relief on Brandi Chastain's face.

Women's soccer took over the nation's capital last night. A World Cup doubleheader. A massive traffic jam. A visit by the president. And then the topper -- players on both teams applauding the fans after the United States defeated Germany in a quarterfinal match at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, 3-2.

"I'm so proud of the fact that so many people are following it and jumping on board," said Tiffeny Milbrett, who scored the first U.S. goal. "They see. They see exactly how it is. We're definitely turning heads. We're definitely making people take notice outside of the soccer community."

Last night amounted to another critical step for a sport on the rise, a step made possible only by the enduring grit and skill of the U.S. women. You want pressure? The moment the Americans lose -- if they lose -- interest in this tournament will plummet, and the sport's 15 minutes of fame will be over.

All of that seemed possible last night, especially at halftime, with Germany leading, 2-1. But Chastain scored unassisted in the 49th minute and Joy Fawcett scored off a corner kick from Shannon MacMillan in the 66th minute. The outcome was never again in doubt.

President Clinton visited the American locker room afterward -- insert your own punch line -- but U.S. coach Tony DiCicco didn't hesitate when asked if his bigger thrill was winning the game or meeting the president.

"Thank God I'm not a politician," DiCicco joked. "The game was incredibly exciting, and to have the President come down and honor this team was just so fitting. I think America saw why they're so attracted to this team tonight. They played on pure guts. They refused to be beaten."

And their sport isn't about to disappear, not with so many young girls kicking so many balls on so many fields across the country and around the world. Still, a World Cup victory probably is necessary for the players' ultimate dream -- a U.S. women's professional league -- to take hold.

Laugh if you must, but all it takes is one cable network in need of programming, a couple of corporate sponsors, and you're on your way. Soccer moms represent not only an important political constituency, but also a terrific untapped market for professional sports.

A women's pro league would face major obstacles, but five years ago, who could have imagined 50,000 watching the Women's World Cup in this country? A Mia and Michael commercial? Women's tennis eclipsing men's? The WNBA?

It's all happening now, and Title IX never looked better. Young girls came to The Jack last night wearing Mia Hamm jerseys, red, white and blue paint on their faces, stars-and-stripes bandanas on their heads.

Who knows?

Maybe one day a stadium will be nicknamed The Jan.

Last night was an event, with Bill and Hillary and Chelsea cheering -- and the crowd booing the president every time he was shown on the video screens. The best part was, the game wasn't an afterthought, as it sometimes is on these occasions.

Heck, the night offered everything you would want from a major sporting event: Drama (the U.S. rallying from behind), Courage (Akers playing in pain); Surprise (MacMillan setting up the winning goal seconds after entering the game), and Redemption (Chastain scoring after giving Germany a 1-0 lead with an own goal).

Pressure?

The U.S. women are so wired, they barely seem to notice.

"We relish it," said MacMillan, her arms glistening with sweat, her face beaming. "This is when it all begins for us. We heard they opened the top tier to sell more tickets. That's what it's all about. This is when it's on the line. This is when the team really starts playing."

Two more victories and they can regain the world championship they won in 1991 but failed to defend in '95.

"It's very strange," Milbrett said. "You don't expect it, and it's not like we're going out it in this USA garb. We wear what anyone else would wear -- you know, a T-shirt from whatever store.

"Last night I went out to dinner at the Rio Grande Cafi and some guy came up to me and said, `Miss Milbrett, good luck. We're going to be there tomorrow night.' Three people stopped us at the mall. It's like, `Wow!' "

Where does it end? Well, it's becoming fashionable to view women's sports as a refreshing alternative for fans who are alienated by the problems of men's sports -- money, ego, etc. But it's probably more accurate to say that women's sports attract an entirely different set of fans, like Extreme Sports or even NASCAR.

Yes, the World Cup games are drawing higher ESPN ratings than regular-season NHL games, but this is a one-shot deal, a novelty.

The major sports aren't going anywhere, but they're sort of like the major television networks. Beset with problems, besieged by upstarts.

It's a brave new world. It's a big new world.

A world breathtaking to behold.

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