By Christian Schneider
Like everyone else in this country with a pulse, I buried myself into Team USA's World Cup campaign last summer. I went nuts in an Arizona hotel room when John Brooks headed in the game-winning goal against Ghana. I threw the water bottle in my hand across the room of my new apartment when we let Portugal tie us in the last 30 seconds of the match. I stood and screamed with 10,000 total strangers at the Redondo Beach viewing party of USA-Belgium and was absolutely, positively CONVINCED we were gonna pull off the comeback in that game. I know almost everyone else has a story like that.
What I'm less convinced of, however, is that I will be joined in doing the exact same thing all over again this summer when the Women's Team goes to Canada. And that's sad. Because our ladies might actually win the whole damn thing, whereas the men set the country ablaze by making the round of 16. But even though the USWNT (U.S. Women's National Team) is a perennial powerhouse and three-time defending Olympic champion, they still don't have the ratings, hype, or professional impact of the men's game.
It's hard for me to remember what the first sports event I ever watched was. Usually because it was my Dad watching while five-year-old me was sitting on the floor playing with Playmobiles. But two games have always stuck out in my mind. The first is Michael Jordan hitting the shot against the Jazz in Game 6 in the 1998 Finals. I was six, but I new that MJ would score, that it was his last game, and there was no way MJ could ever lose his last game (then that second return nonsense happened but whatever).
The second was the US Women beating China at the Rose Bowl in 1999 to win the World Cup. I'll never forget it. I was at a backyard BBQ party at a neighbor's house and rather than playing in the backyard or in the pool, everyone was watching. It was the story of the summer, how Mia Hamm and Co. were selling out football stadiums all over America and trying in the process to carve a professional league for women's soccer. It ended pretty well; Brandi Chastain scored the winning penalty, the US won, and the girls got their league. Meanwhile seven-year-old me and my buddies were running around pulling our shirts off to imitate Chastain's iconic celebration, minus the sport bra of course. America rejoiced.
And that was as good as it ever got. For the following years, women's soccer suffered numerous reminders that they were still minor leaguers compared to men's sports. Their league has been suspended, rebooted, suspended again, while MLS has managed to bring in players like David Beckham.
When the US Women won gold in 2004, part of Hamm, Chastain, Julie Foudy, and Joy Fawcett's farewell tour, they were interviewed by Bob Costas who led off with the question to Mia, "So, what everyone back home wants to know: How's Nomar?" (that's Nomar Garciaparra, All-Star shortstop and Mia Hamm's then newlywed husband). As an 11-year-old New England fan who had just seen the Sox trade Nomar away, I felt like the question made sense. Until my Mom just about lost her mind. Imagine if the first question put to Tom Brady after the last Super Bowl was about Gisele's newest photoshoot. Now multiply it by a hundred. That's how offensive it was. (By the way, the four women mentioned at the top of this paragraph, along with Kristine Lilly and Brianna Scurry, all rank in the top 100 in terms of successful American athletes on the international scale. I doubt 10% of the people reading this article know their names, besides Hamm and maybe Chastain because she took her top off. Not your fault, but you get the point)
Then in 2011, a spark was struck. To be specific, a soccer ball was struck by the head of Abby Wambach into the back of the net in the USWNT's quarterfinal game against Brazil. It remains the single craziest goal I have ever seen in soccer, men's or women's, and was the signature of one of the craziest games I have ever seen. You can watch it in its entirety here:
Long story short, Brazil scores an own goal, US gets called for bogus red card that lets Brazil tie the score and forces US to play with 10 players. Brazil scores again, then starts faking injuries (not diving, like lying down and screaming, getting stretchered off and suddenly standing up and being fine. Watch Key and Peele's Futbol Flop and you'll know what I mean) in order to burn time off the clock. The crowd is furious at the bullshit and sides with the US. Brazil's strategy backfires as a bunch of time is added and in the last 20 seconds of the match Megan Rapinoe (remember the name this summer, she's a BEAST) puts in a ridiculous cross over the whole Brazil defense to Wambach, who heads it in. US wins on penalties.
All of a sudden people are watching Women's Soccer again. The final defeat against Japan brought in 13.5 million viewers, the most for an ESPN soccer game. That is, until the USA played Portugal in their second group game last summer. That one got 18.22 million, more than even the 1999 final, which everyone supposedly watched and was on ABfreakingC, not cable. I'll repeat that; the single most significant game in American Women's Sports was beaten out by the second game of group play in the men's tournament.
And so here we go again; soccer is supposedly buzzing in the US after the heroics of the men's team and we've got a whole new tournament, one that could very well end with the USA hoisting the Cup. Are we gonna watch? And if we do, why?
The two biggest soccer stars on the USWNT are Alex Morgan and Hope Solo. There is absolutely no question that they are elite talents and deserve all the hype they get, but they also do modeling work; Morgan was in SI's swimsuit edition, and Solo went nude for ESPN's Body Issue. Anything wrong with that? Of course not, God knows women, especially women athletes, aren't paid what they should be in this country, so grab all the cash you can get ladies, before you can't play anymore!
But do we have the same stardom for Christie Rampone, the 40-year-old defensive captain who has been with the team since before the 1999 Final? Or Rapinoe? Or Carli Lloyd, the highest scoring midfielder in US history, who single-handedly won us the Gold Medal in London? Or Abby Freaking Wambach, who has scored more goals than any other player in US history, including Mia Hamm? Like with Mia Hamm before them, the USWNT has had to sell its image to the red-blooded American man in order to gain traction. That's a sad reality because these girls have got more than enough game that it should speak for itself.
So please, watch the Women's World Cup this summer. I know I will. But watch it for sports reasons and not because it's a more acceptable form of model wrestling. Watch it because this is Abby Wambach's last shot at winning a World Cup (she's got three gold medals, but not the top prize). Watch it because 2011 should have been theirs but Japan scored two crazy lucky goals and robbed them. Watch it because every time you've said "Wow, how sick would it be if the USA won the World Cup?" you were forgetting that WE ALREADY WON IT!!! TWICE!!!
The World Cup starts on June 6th. It's in Canada so don't worry about the time difference. I don't know if there's gonna be a viewing party at Redondo Beach. But I hope there is. I really do.