Since U.S.’ 1999 glory, world has geared up

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Kevin Bax­ter

WIN­NIPEG, Canada — It’s one of the most mem­o­rable mo­ments in the his­tory of women’s sports: Af­ter bury­ing her penalty shot to lift the U.S. over China in the fi­nal of the 1999World Cup, a joy­ful Brandi Chas­tain ripped off her shirt and dropped to her knees, touch­ing off a rau­cous cel­e­bra­tion in a sold-out Rose Bowl.

It was more than just a vic­tory for the sports bra, though. Af­ter cap­tur­ing their sec­ond World Cup in three tries, the U.S. women thought they would never

lose again.

“We were plan­ning on win­ning the one right af­ter that. The motto was ‘win for­ever,’ ” re­mem­bers goal­keeper Bri­ana Scurry.

“That was the ex­pec­ta­tion. That was the stan­dard,” agrees de­fender Christie Ram­pone. “We’d be on this team that kept win­ning World Cups.”

The re­al­ity is the U.S. hasn’t won one since. What was sup­posed to be the be­gin­ning of a dy­nasty turned out to be the start of a drought in­stead.

When the U.S. opens play in this year’s Women’s World Cup on Monday against Aus­tralia, not only will it be chas­ing its first ti­tle in 16 years, it won’t even be con­sid­ered the fa­vorite in that race. That nod goes to Ger­many, the world’s topranked team and one of more than a half-dozen coun­tries with a le­git­i­mate shot at the ti­tle.

So what hap­pened to U.S. hege­mony? Turns out the 1999 World Cup was so suc­cess­ful, the home team’s dom­i­nance may have be­gun to fade even be­fore Chas­tain took her shirt off.

“I don’t think we re­al­ized the growth of the game,” says Julie Foudy, a two-time World Cup cham­pion who played on the 1999 team. “The ad­van­tage we al­ways had is we have mil­lions of kids play­ing here in the United States. Other coun­tries just don’t em­brace women play­ing like we have.

“What you’re see­ing now is coun­tries are com­ing around, slowly but surely.”

And the 1999 tour­na­ment in the U.S. may have been the im­pe­tus for that.

The first Women’s World Cup, in 1991, had few spon­sors and the sec­ond one, fouryears later, had few fans, av­er­ag­ing fewer than 4,400 over its 26 games. But af­ter prod­ding from both the play­ers and U.S. Soc­cer, cor­po­rate America lined up to back the 1999 tour­na­ment— and so did the fans, with the home team play­ing in front of sell­out crowds at New Jer­sey’s Gi­ants Sta­dium and Chicago’s Soldier Field be­fore draw­ing more than 90,000 to the Rose Bowl for the fi­nal.

Nearly 18 mil­lion other Amer­i­cans watched the cham­pi­onship game on TV.

The change was so dra­matic that Aaron Heifetz, the U.S. team’s press of­fi­cer, had to ex­plain to for­ward Mia Hamm what a sell­out was.

“The first drive down the New Jer­sey Turn­pike we have a po­lice es­cort and there’s still traf­fic,” Chas­tain re­mem­bers. “We were like, ‘What is go­ing on?’ The closer we got we re­al­ized, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re com­ing to the World Cup!’ ”

In 1995, the U.S. had played a World Cup game be­fore 1,150 in Swe­den. Now they were draw­ing that many to train­ing ses­sions.

“Com­ing out of the tun­nel [to] the sound of ev­ery­body cheer­ing and ris­ing up, it was just un­be­liev­able,” Scurry says. “It was all we could do not to cry.”

By the time the three­week-long tour­na­ment had ended, the U.S. team had cap­tured not just a World Cup tro­phy but the imag­i­na­tion of the coun­try aswell.

“We knew it was spe­cial. Just be­cause of the crowds and the sta­di­ums and the me­dia,” says Tony DiCicco, who coached the 1999 U.S. team. “And we knew it was a point in his­tory as far as women’s athletics.

“It is still con­sid­ered the great­est women’s sport­ing event in his­tory.”

The play­ers in uni­form weren’t the only ones who were moved. Megan Rapi­noe re­mem­bers watch­ing the tour­na­ment as a14-yearold club player in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

Monday she’ll play in her sec­ond World Cup for the U.S.

“It was sort of a mag­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence to be that young and to be a bud­ding soc­cer player and to have that on home soil,” she says.

The rest of the world no­ticed too. And sud­denly coun­tries where women’s soc­cer was an af­ter­thought — if it­was thought of at all— were spend­ing time and money on the sport. So much so that Ja­pan, which won only one game and was outscored by 27 goals in the first three World Cups, wona ti­tle in 2011.

“Fed­er­a­tions are grow­ing and spend­ing more money,” says Ram­pone, the only holdover from the 1999 squad still on the U.S. team for this sum­mer’s tour­na­ment. “The fit­ness is bet­ter, which makes for speed of play. The vi­sion’s a lot bet­ter be­cause the pace is just in­cred­i­ble.

“There are a lot more teams that are com­pet­ing— and can com­pete — for the World Cup.”

Among them the U.S. Be­cause if the rest of the world has caught up to the Amer­i­cans, it hasn’t nec­es­sar­ily passed them.

The U.S. took Ja­pan to over­time, then penalty kicks, be­fore los­ing four years ago. And it re­mains the only coun­try to have made it to the fi­nal in ev­ery Olympics and the semi­fi­nals of ev­ery World Cup, win­ning at least a bronze in al l11 tour­na­ments.

“We’re the best women’s team ever as far as the his­tory of the women’s game and our tra­di­tion of win­ning,” says DiCicco, who will watch this World Cup from the Fox Sports broad­cast booth. But, he adds, “We kind of lost our­way” by turn­ing a strength into a weak­ness. While the U.S. has tra­di­tion­ally re­lied on its strong col­lege pro­grams to train na­tional team play­ers — all 23 mem­bers of this year’s team went to four-year schools— other coun­tries have had to in­vest heav­ily in youth pro­grams. So now the U.S. is try­ing to in­cor­po­rate some of that into its de­vel­op­men­tal model aswell.

“If you ask U.S. Soc­cer who spends the most money on soc­cer, they’ll yell back at you, ‘Of course we do. There’s no­body who spends more money on soc­cer,’ ” DiCicco says. “But if we spent the most money… how come we’ve gone 16 years with­out win­ning a World Cup?”

And while we’re ask­ing ques­tions, here’s one DiCicco never fig­ured his name would be the an­swer to in 2015: Who was the last U.S. coach to win a Women’s World Cup?

Jill El­lis, who would be­comethe new an­swer to that ques­tion should the U.S. win this year, says her play­ers are well aware they’re chas­ing his­tory. And she be­lieves they’re up to the chal­lenge.

“This group has a chance to now carve out their legacy,” she says. “They un­der­stand what they’re shoot­ing for. It would be phe­nom­e­nal.”

Ana­cleto Rapping Los An­ge­les Times

BRANDI CHAS­TAIN’S joy af­ter the de­ci­sive penalty shot in the 1999 fi­nal is a last­ing im­age of U.S.’ feat.

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