Women's Cup hits one over the fence

July 10, 1999|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Talk about exceeding expectations.

Soccer's world governing body originally advised the United States that high school stadiums in the Northeast would be good enough for the 1999 Women's World Cup.

But America's "think-big" soccer marketers thought otherwise. So this afternoon, FIFA's men in suits will see a new women's champion determined in Pasadena, Calif., before nearly 90,000 spectators at a sold-out Rose Bowl.

Even organizers of this third quadrennial tournament scarcely believe their success, which, in fact, is unprecedented in women's sports. They've sold more than 650,000 tickets to 32 games that, albeit with the home team a favorite, have enchanted the nation and, some say, have broken open a potentially large, new sports market -- females watching females compete.

The 1995 tournament, in Sweden, drew 112,000 fans total, with virtually no worldwide exposure.

Earlier this week, organizers "found" several thousand extra seats with marginal sightlines in the Rose Bowl; tickets for them vanished at $45 a pop. Los Angeles ticket brokers were getting $600 to $1,000 for prime seats.

Millions more fans, the biggest numbers by far in the United States despite 60-some countries that will get the live television feed, also will watch today's final, preceded by the third-place game between Brazil and Norway.

"The last two weeks have been an absolutely exhilarating experience," said Marla Messing, the organizing committee president. "As big as I thought this tournament could be, it has been bigger."

Competitively, China and the United States have been frequent rivals, and surprised almost no one inside the game by reaching today's final. Both enter with 5-0-0 tournament records and only subtly different stats, ranging from fouls to goals.

This will be the 22nd time the teams have met since 1986; the Americans lead in that series, 11-5-5, but 15 games were decided by one goal.

China has beaten the Americans twice in three tries this year, 2-1 each time, once for a tournament title in Portugal; the Americans won the other, 2-1. In the last two matches, stoppage-time goals were decisive. China's last-moment win in the Meadowlands in an April friendly ended a 50-game U.S. home unbeaten streak.

For today's game, some insiders favor China, and even U.S. coach Tony DiCicco told Soccertimes.com, a Chevy Chase-based Web site: "They have to be considered the favorites here. Let them have the pressure of being the favorites.

"But the rhetoric isn't going to matter. The previous games aren't going to matter. It's going to come down to two outstanding teams going at it on the field and who plays the better game."

The Chinese have a history of losing big matches, but are playing attractively and, after bashing defending champ Norway, 5-0, in their semifinal, with confidence just shy of swagger.

Most followers rate this game a tantalizing toss-up that could turn on one or two plays, with effects of the hugely pro-American crowd a wild card.

Will China choke? Will the supportive roar lift U.S. players to new highs? Or will it turn players -- on both teams -- tentative, fearful of erring in so big a match against an opponent capable of punishing the slightest defensive mistake?

If all this seems a little deja vu, today's game has that element, too. For the United States and China played once before to be best in the world -- three years ago in front of another huge crowd, which until three weeks ago was the largest to see a women's game.

That was for an Olympic gold medal in Athens, Ga., and even though NBC didn't think the game warranted coverage, it was a great match, which the United States won, 2-1.

Ma Yuanen, China's coach and studious avoider of the American press, recalled recently that, "In 1996, when we won the silver medal, I prepared for this [tournament] -- for two years."

Several things to remember while watching today:

9 vs. 9: No, not soccer jargon for a nine-player game. Those coincidentally are the jersey numbers of Mia Hamm, the world's most prolific scorer ever, and Sun Wen, China's playmaker and co-leader among Cup scorers. Heretical, maybe, but Sun is more essential to China's game than Hamm is to American play.

Hamm, bothered by a right hamstring, is scoreless in three games, though as a teammate put it: "Good things happen to Mia in big games."

Finishing touches: China has only one more tournament goal than the U.S. team, but has put 20 more shots on target. And the Chinese have outshot the Americans, 101-86. But in this year's three matchups, the United States outshot China, 40-20.

DiCicco wants more and better passes to Hamm and other front-runners Tiffeny Milbrett, Cindy Parlow and super-sub Shannon MacMillan.

Tactics: Both teams like to play wide. U.S. attackers switch play more from side-to-side to keep defenders moving, increasing chances for errors and leaving openings forwards can exploit, but China's not bad at it, either. Each team has multiple scorers.

How often U.S. defenders, especially Brandi Chastain and Joy Fawcett, attack could be important, because the Chinese are dangerous on breakaways. In fact, that's how they beat the Americans twice this year.

The referee: Switzerland's Nicole Mouidi Petignat, whose biggest match before this Cup was the Swiss national youth championship, will be in the middle. She let Nigeria repeatedly hack U.S. players in Chicago, drawing a little-publicized complaint from DiCicco. Petignat also called China's 2-0 win over Russia.

Women's World Cup

Today's championship

At Pasadena, Calif.

United States vs. China, 3: 30 p.m., Chs. 2, 7

Today's third-place game

At Pasadena, Calif.

Norway vs. Brazil, 1: 30 p.m., ESPN

Women's Cup hits one over the fence; U.S.-China final caps huge success as draw

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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