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U.S. women

Something is happening with the idolized U.S. women.

By Mike Lopresti
Gannett News Service

(Thursday, July 8, 1999) -- Last call for the U.S. Women's World Cup bandwagon. Painted faces are optional.

It would be a good idea to pay attention when the Yanks have a go at China to see who is queen of all soccerdom. Defining moments do not come along very often. Which is what Saturday is supposed to be for women's sports in this country, with upwards of 90,000 people at the Rose Bowl, a place where big crowds normally show up to watch Michigan tackles chase USC tailbacks.

A soccer game in the United States - a women's soccer game -- will draw more people than the population of Boulder, Colo. This means something, though I am not exactly sure what. It is hard to tell if this is quite the Great Awakening currently shouted about, or the noisy emotion of the moment.

And yet something is happening. I am not big on this sport, and never will be. But one need not be a meteorologist to notice a thunderstorm.

Might this be for women's team sports what UCLA-Houston was for college basketball? Joe Namath for the Super Bowl? Johnson vs. Bird was for the NBA? Perhaps.

It is not that this country has been ignorant of women's sports. Anyone here ever heard of Mary Lou Retton? The seventh highest rated television program of all time was the 1994 Winter Olympic skating of Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, though a couple earlier hitmen didn't hurt. But the Olympics are the Olympics, invariably featuring individuals. Team sports have pretty much been left to the Bulls and Broncos of the world.

Until now. The women have become a sensation. The intriguing part is why, because there is no one answer.

The pig-tailed army of young girls who turn their faces into flags and scream at the very sight of the players have come to worship heroines -- Mia, Briana, Julie and Michelle, as if they were John, Paul, George and Ringo.

For crustier grownup fans, the women have personalities. They have looks. They play a style of soccer where there is more than one or two scoring chances a week. Oh, and they win.

Common theory had it that the men would one day bring soccer's ship in for the United States. It is hard to do that finishing 32nd and last, as the guys did in last year's World Cup. They couldn't even beat Iran.

The women are one game from owning the planet. They are unfailingly polite. It is impossible not to like this team. Can you say that about the Knicks?

And so the people have come. The president and CEOs and hard-boiled 49er fans and fourth graders named Jessica and Brittany and their moms in their minivans.

Some are drawn by the soccer. Some by athletes who do not sulk, wantonly drip profanity, ignore civility, father children by the platoon or treat the public as impersonal cash machines. Some are drawn by the confirmation that women's teams can show the same steel as men. And some of the guys from the talk shows are drawn by the vaguely exotic combination of athletic prowess and becoming femininity.

The last subject is a dicey and fascinating one, but it is an undeniable part of this team's star power. A lot of males are keeping their hands off the remote clicker to see good soccer by good looking women.

Social commentators and feminists may grumble, but the women themselves seem to have accepted this as part of the deal all along.

Brandi Chastain was not dragged kicking and screaming into her magazine photo shoot, appearing with only a strategically placed soccer ball. Mia Hamm was not coerced into appearing as one of People magazine's 50 most beautiful people, nor was Julie Foudy for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue with her husband.

They knew along how it would be. That it takes a lot of different reasons to get 90,000 Americans to a soccer game.

They have beguiled us, with their talent and their will and their charm and even their looks. They are not quite atop the media world. The much lauded TV rating of 2.9 million homes last Sunday is still about 35 million short of a poorly watched Super Bowl.

And yet they have become so huge, when so many didn't even know they were there. Their impact has been remarkable. It could be enormous. But first, they'd better beat China.

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