Back when Michelle Akers played youth soccer, the national championships were not quite so glamourous.
There was no big sponsor, no press conferences and no crowd.
“You stayed at a hotel independently, showed up on some field, and, at the end of it all, a guy walked over and gave you a ribbon,” said Akers, 29, who now plays for the U.S. women’s national team. “The only people watching you were your parents and your brother, and he didn’t really want to even come. Now it’s something of prestige.”
This year’s championships, which will be played today through Sunday in Palm Beach, Fla., already had a sponsor, scheduled press junkets and high attendance expectations. But the event got a little more prestigious when Akers, who spoke at Wednesday’s opening ceremonies, also got involved.
The 5-foot-10 forward is the national team’s all-time leading scorer and one of the most popular figures in U.S. women’s soccer. She was a four-time All-American at the University of Central Florida and then went on to help the national team to the world championship in 1991.
Akers has been on the squad since 1985, longer than anyone else currently playing, and she intends to stick around when a bulk of the team retires after the 1996 Olympics. But while she has seen the past 10 years bring unparalleled success for the American women, she has plenty of worries about the next decade.
“There’s no chance in hell that we’ll be able to compete on the world level if there aren’t some serious changes in the U.S. development system,” she said. “I think we’re still the best team in the world, despite the loss to Norway (in the 1995 World Championships), but that’s really going to slip once everyone retires after Atlanta.”
The biggest problem is training. The U.S. cultivated women’s soccer about 25 years ago, which is the same time the rest of the world began to get serious about the sport. So in 1991, when most of the premier players were in their early 20’s, colleges were a great venue for developing players, and the U.S. was able to grab the title. But by the 1995 championships, the best players were older and the level of competition was higher. And it will only get worse.
First in Europe and now in South America, women play on professional leagues from the age of 18. This means they get exposed to tougher play sooner and that they can play alongside the sport’s veterans.
“The best players in the country are not 21 years old, and they need a place to go after they graduate from college so there is not such a huge gap,” Akers said. “Right now they have to find a men’s college team to play with just to keep sharp between national team events.”
Another problem is that the cultural divide, which used to keep the U.S. women ahead of many of their competitors, is not so deep anymore. In the past, women from places like the U.S., Sweden and Germany have dominated because their countries’ cultures allowed for strong, athletic women. Traditional men’s soccer powers, like Brazil, discouraged women from doing anything that would take them away from the home.
But as these societies allow women more freedom, there is an explosive potential for them to claim a winning spot on the world soccer stage.
“It’s scary - they have already started the leagues (in Brazil), and the country is already in love with the sport,” Akers said. “We’re working on our maximum potential right now. They haven’t even skimmed the surface of their potential and they’re already eighth in the world.”
While the girls competing in this week’s championships are probably not yet even pondering these issues, they will come into contact with some of U.S. Soccer’s attempts at solutions. For the first time, the national team has a full-time training facility near Orlando, Fla., and a 20-team Nike league has just been launched. Bigger sponsors have gotten involved, and Reebok and Nike have started putting team members in their commercials. It is a start, but not nearly enough.