Girls take pride from World Cup

Soccer: The popularity of the U.S. women's team shows how much the sporting world has changed for the youngest generation of athletes.

July 03, 1999|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

LANDOVER -- Meet Elizabeth, Lindsay, Betsy, E. J., Jessica, Meaghan and the rest, ages 13 and 14. They're fearsome athletes on one of Maryland's elite soccer teams. Most have been kicking soccer balls since age 5. They have no concept of life before women's sports. They weren't even on Earth before Title IX.

Hence, their five straight hours of SCREAMING Thursday night, when the U.S. women beat Germany, 3-2.

Women's World Cup Soccer filled Jack Kent Cooke Stadium: Imagine that. Suddenly, the teen-agers, who play on a Division I team from Howard County called Coventry, were cheering not for Cal Ripkens or Brady Andersons but for girl-heroes just like them.

It was their night, their sport, in which U.S. women are outshining the men (who, the girls note, haven't won a World Cup).

From the decibel level, you'd think it was a Will Smith concert.

Except way more awesome, because these are women, and they play soccer, and we can relate, the girls said, beaming through mouthfuls of colored braces, their faces painted red, white and blue, little stars stuck on their cheeks, little flags stuck in their ponytails.

When E. J. Goldman watches U.S. goalie Brianna Scurry dive for a save, she dives right along with her, having done it herself a thousand times. When Elizabeth Foley looks out at the field, she wants to put on her cleats and shin guards and go kick a ball. The girls watched in amazement as Brazil's No. 10, known as Sissi, flicked the ball over her shoulder three times to get away from three different opponents, and as Brandi Chastain of the United States came back from an early mistake that gave Germany its first goal -- and scored.

"We hope to be them when we grow up," said Tessa Laidig.

The success of the U.S. women's team -- 1991 world champs, 1996 Olympic gold medalists and, as of Thursday, semifinalists in this year's World Cup -- has fired up a generation of soccer players and their parents, who have watched their favorite pastime surge into international stardom over the past eight years.

Now, with the U.S. women triumphant on their home turf, with commercials featuring No. 9 Mia Hamm alongside Michael Jordan, the sport has produced a cult following. The stadium was crawling with high-ponytailed little girls wearing white No. 9 "Hamm" replica jerseys and T-shirts that said GOAL GIRL. Barbie Dolls dressed as Mia Hamm were for sale.

Right out of central casting was Becky Thompson, 10, halfback on a Frederick team, who has adorned her room with posters of U.S. women players. A special space in her closet -- with a desk, lamp and trophies -- is reserved for soccer.

Becky is a third-generation soccer enthusiast, the product of Columbia's pioneering programs in the early 1970s, which from the start gave equal attention to girls and boys. Becky's grandfather, Jim Carlan -- now president of the Soccer Association of Columbia and Howard County -- got involved back then, when his daughters wanted to play and the team needed a coach.

Since then, participation in Howard County has exploded. The association, the second-largest in the state, has 5,600 players, about 40 percent of them girls. Nationally, growth in girls soccer has outpaced that of boys, in part because of federal Title IX, which mandates equal athletic opportunities for female and male students.

Becky's mom, Laura Thompson, 35, still plays, in a women's league.

"You're seeing more female coaches and refs out there, and more moms playing the game," she said. "It's becoming such a powerful game."

As a result, many girls today can't imagine life on the sidelines. When Elizabeth Foley was looking through her mother Gail's 1969 high school yearbook a few years ago, she was truly puzzled. "Where are all the girls teams?" she asked.

But this sports craze, at least for now, is refreshingly different from the rest. There was lots of lemonade and bottled water in sight at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, very little beer.

The U.S. stars don't have multimillion-dollar contracts; they don't even have a professional league.

Different style of play

And as the Coventry girls watch Julie Foudy, Michelle Akers and Kristine Lilly of the United States, they see more teamwork and camaraderie than they do in men's play.

"With the men, when one messes up, the others start yelling at him. The women say, that's OK," Lindsay Hinkle said, riding to the game in the back of her mother's Chevy Tahoe, holding still as Elizabeth Foley painted a flag on one of her cheeks and a "9" on the other (Lindsay's number as well as Hamm's).

"They seem like they're friends," Elizabeth said.

Likewise, the Coventry girls -- who have been traveling together in competitions throughout Maryland and Virginia for four years -- have become good friends.

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