DUSSELDORF, Germany – The U.S. women’s soccer team shared the Yankee Stadium scoreboard with Derek Jeter, made an appearance on “Good Morning America” and can now count Tom Hanks, Lil Wayne and Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers among their list of star-studded admirers.
Like Mia, Brandi and Foudy more than a decade before them, Hope, Abby and the rest of the Americans have become quite the sensation thanks to their performance at the World Cup, a rare turn in the spotlight for U.S. soccer that could produce another watershed moment in the game.
Now the trick is to keep it going.
The Americans play France in the semifinals Wednesday. Win, and they’ll face either Japan or Sweden in Sunday’s final with a chance to become the first team to win three Women’s World Cup titles.
“It’s overwhelming. It’s amazing,” midfielder Carli Lloyd said Monday morning, still savoring the United States’ epic victory over Brazil in a penalty shootout Sunday night. “The support and buzz back home is really awesome, and I think it’s helping women’s soccer. This could be a huge turning point for the growth of soccer back home, and that’s what we’re trying to do and trying to accomplish.
“Hopefully, as an added bonus, we come back with the cup.”
Unlike the American men, for whom making it out of the group stage at the World Cup is a strong showing, the U.S. women have been soccer’s dominant team for about as long as anyone can remember. They’ve won three of the four Olympic gold medals to go with their two World Cup titles. The 1999 squad was such a crossover hit that fans were on a first-name basis with Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain – or last-name basis in Julie Foudy and Kristine Lilly’s case – and soccer moms and dads alike turned out in droves with their kids, packing stadiums from coast to coast for that year’s World Cup.
But U.S. fans can be a fickle bunch. They’ve become so accustomed to the women’s success they yawn at anything less than a World Cup title, and the Americans haven’t won soccer’s biggest prize since that ’99 squad did it. Haven’t produced a team that comes close to duplicating that group’s rock star appeal, either.
Until, perhaps, now.
“We’re participating in something that’s huge,” said Abby Wambach, whose magnificent, leaping header in the 122nd minute Sunday sparked one of the most riveting finishes ever in a World Cup game – men’s or women’s. “Very few times does the spotlight shine so bright on women’s soccer, and we want to prove to everybody around the world that we have a product and that product is worth watching.”
The only thing Americans love more than a winner is one with “U-S-A” emblazoned on its chest, and the fact the women are a gritty, spunky bunch only heightens their appeal. Down a player for almost an hour, on the verge of their earliest World Cup exit, with Marta and the Brazilians pushing, shoving and whining for every call they could get, the U.S. responded with a can-do attitude that is uniquely – and proudly – American.
After Wambach tied the game, Hope Solo denied the Brazilians in penalty kicks, her swat of Daiane’s attempt so resounding it could be heard all the way back to the States.
With that, Americans from Hollywood to Hoboken, N.J., were hooked. FIFA said it was only the fourth time in World Cup history that a team came back to win after falling behind in extra time, and a first at the Women’s World Cup.
“Go ahead, jump on the bandwagon and let’s do this together,” Solo said Monday on Twitter. “One Nation, One World, One Team.”
ESPN’s broadcast drew a 2.6 overnight rating, the best for a Women’s World Cup game since 1999 and second only to that dramatic final at the Rose Bowl, when the Americans beat China on penalty kicks. The game was replayed on ESPN2 a few hours later – an honor reserved for “instant classics.”
Hanks posted a picture of the team on Twitter, saying “I LOVE these women!” Ellen DeGeneres gushed, “The Women’s World Cup game blew my mind today.” Rodgers Tweeted his congratulations, adding, “Now let’s get the cup ladies!!” Montages of Wambach’s goal, and fans’ reaction to it, popped up on YouTube.
The win was front-page news in USA Today, The Washington Post, The Miami Herald and The Wall Street Journal. “GMA” featured Wambach and Solo, and Ali Krieger, who buried the final penalty kick to seal the victory, chatted with MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
“It’s just amazing that it’s getting outside the soccer world,” said Heather O’Reilly, who played 108 minutes three days after missing the final group game with a strained groin. “Soccer people have been following this World Cup and appreciate the game whether it’s men’s or women’s. But now the general sports fan is really picking up on how special this team is and how special that win was. That’s great.”
The timing couldn’t be better, either, with little else on the sports calendar to steal the women’s thunder. Jeter picked up his 3,000th hit Saturday, and Tiger Woods is sitting out the British Open with a bum leg. The NFL lockout continues to drag on, and the only decision NBA players are making these days is whether to play overseas until their labor issues get settled.
“I’m hearing, ‘I’ve never watched a soccer game before but now I’m watching them,’ ” said Shannon Boxx, who said her phone was “blowing up” with congratulatory texts and emails. “We’re here to play and to have fun ourselves and to do well, but we’re also here to promote women’s soccer. You watch a game like that, and it’s hard not to like soccer.”
But as the U.S. men learned last year, this window to win people over is fleeting.
The Americans enjoyed unprecedented support during last summer’s World Cup in South Africa, with fans filling bars at breakfast and tuning in at home in record numbers. When Landon Donovan scored 45 seconds into stoppage time against Algeria to send the Americans into the second round, the reaction was so spirited and jubilant it turned an ordinary workday into a de facto national holiday.
When the Americans fizzled against Ghana, however, so did the hype. People watched the rest of the tournament, but not with their original fervor.
“I woke up this morning, looked at my phone once again. Lots of buzz, e-mails,” Lloyd said. “But as of now, we’ve got to put it behind us. I’m now turning my focus to France. Because we have to. We know that the time we can enjoy it is, hopefully, when we win this thing and we can look back at the history we’ve just created and the epic game and enjoy it. But it’s very important for us to not get on too much of a high from this game because we have our business to take care of Wednesday.”