The U.S. women’s soccer team is two games away from making history, and on the eve of Wednesday’s World Cup semifinal against France (ESPN, noon ET) the biggest moment in that history — the 1999 World Cup title — remains both an inspiration and, truth be told, an albatross. But finally, finally, finally, these U.S. players are realizing, they have a golden opportunity to create their own iconic triumph before a national audience in the millions.
Let’s be honest: You can’t watch a second of ESPN’s (mostly excellent) World Cup coverage without seeing one of the ’99ers, whether it’s Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, Briana Scurry, Kate Markgraf, Mia Hamm or former coach Tony DiCicco. After the U.S. bounced Brazil in the most dramatic fashion possible on Sunday, goalkeeper Hope Solo and forward Abby Wambach got the superstar treatment on Good Morning America and other national talk shows on Monday. But they also know they won’t truly escape the shadow of ’99 unless they can win two more games here.
It’s a delicate balance: Today’s U.S. players want to be respectful toward their legendary forebears, the sports pioneers who toiled in obscurity for years before their breakout moment in ’99. But the Class of 2011 also wants to write a new chapter in the history of this team. Right now the U.S. women are like the younger sister of a high school genius/homecoming queen, a younger sister who has to listen to stories about her older sibling’s greatness all the time.
“That’s all we’ve ever heard about,” said Solo of the ’99ers here on Tuesday, just a few feet away from where Foudy was standing. “And we all know that they paved the way. But at some point in time you have to let go and build new stories and new names to the game. I think if there’s any team to do it, it’s this team.”
“Somebody asked me [on Sunday], ‘Is it that much more inspirational to win since it was on the 12-year anniversary of the ’99 team winning?’ I was like, ‘None of us thought of that. We’re here to win.’ We’re not here to win because they did it 12 years ago. We’re here to win for our country, for our team, for all the work we’ve put in. So all this stuff about ’99, their journey was great, but that was 12 years ago.”
It hasn’t always been easy for this younger generation. The ’99 team had the Rushmore faces of their sport (Hamm, Michelle Akers, Kristine Lilly, Foudy, etc.), the HBO documentary and the head start from Title IX that gave the U.S. a leg up on most other countries. Today’s players have to deal with more competition in the women’s game: Japan and France, for example, are both first-time World Cup semifinalists. More teams than ever have the chance to win this tournament.
“It’s hard,” says U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd. “What [the '99ers] did was legendary, and I never want to take away from what they accomplished. If it weren’t for them, maybe I wouldn’t be in this situation right now. They built so much. But I think we should be given a little bit more credit than we’re getting. I think the game has evolved. It’s a lot harder. The U.S. isn’t just going to go out there and beat teams 3-0 or 4-0 anymore.”
“I think we are going to write our own story,” Lloyd added. “I think there could possibly be another movie about this team. And I think that’s something special.”
Here are four other things on my mind heading into USA-France:
• Wednesday is Becky Sauerbrunn’s big chance. It’s an unlikely story: After not having played a single minute in this World Cup, center back Becky Sauerbrunn is set to start on Wednesday in place of Rachel Buehler, who’s suspended after her red card in the Brazil game. Sauerbrunn trained with the starters in practice on Tuesday — the other 10 first-teamers remained unchanged from the Brazil lineup — and she has been preparing to play ever since the moment in Sunday’s postgame celebration when a teammate turned to her and said: “Are you going to be ready?”
“If they call my name, I’ll be ready,” Sauerbrunn said.
A 26-year-old Virginia alum who plays in WPS for MagicJack, Sauerbrunn says there’s no way she would be on this U.S. team were it not for the existence of the U.S. domestic league. She did play in two games against Japan in May when Christie Rampone was injured, but Sauerbrunn wasn’t even sure she’d be on the final U.S. roster when she went into her meeting with coach Pia Sundhage before final cuts were made. (“I thought it was 50-50.”)
Now she’ll be starting in a World Cup semifinal. One thing that should help on Wednesday: Sauerbrunn is familiar with her central defender partner, Rampone. They both play alongside each other on their WPS team.
• Can the U.S. avoid an emotional letdown? Their dramatic comeback against Brazil was the talk of the U.S. sports world the last couple days, an all-timer fantastic finish. But the Americans’ situation heading into Wednesday’s semifinal is eerily similar to the one the U.S. men faced at last year’s World Cup after Landon Donovan’s last-second goal saved the team from elimination against Algeria. There’s a short turnaround between games here, and you got the sense the U.S. men didn’t quite put their emotional win behind them enough before falling to Ghana in the Round of 16.
Solo, for one, said the biggest challenge the last couple days has been emotional, not physical. She didn’t sleep at all on Sunday night due to the adrenaline rush, she said, and she was hoping to start looking forward to France on Monday morning. When she showed up at the team breakfast on Monday she was silent, not wanting to bring up the previous day, but so was everyone else. Finally, somebody spoke up: “That was pretty incredible last night.” And they started talking about the game again.
“We couldn’t just sweep it under the rug,” Solo said. “We had to experience the emotions, had to welcome those feelings. Last night [Monday] we were finally, ‘All right, new city, new stadium tomorrow, time to turn our entire focus to France.’ But it did take a day longer than I thought it would.”
• Does France have the horses to beat the Americans? Simple answer: Yes. The U.S. will be favored in this game, mainly due to its advantages in athleticism and experience on the big stage. France is a young team, but it does have 10 players from Olympique Lyonnais (which won this year’s Champions League) and an edge in ball skills and creativity over the U.S. that could put pressure on the American defense. Keep an eye on creative midfielder Louisa Necib, forward Marie-Laure Delie (who has scored more than a goal per appearance) and forward Gaëtane Thiney, whose two goals helped bury Canada 4-0 in the score line shocker of the tournament. France isn’t bulletproof, though: its defense had a Keystone Kops moment against England, bumping into each other comically to allow England’s first goal. That’s the kind of weakness the U.S. will try to exploit.
(A random question going through the media center today: Has there ever been a good rivalry between the U.S. and France in sports? It was hard to think of one. The only lasting image in my mind was Vince Carter’s straddle-your-head slam dunk over Freddy Weis in the 2000 Olympics, something of a one-sided rivalry.)
• The French coach is a hoot. My first sight of French coach Bruno Bini here came before the news conference, when I saw him smoking a thin French cigarette outside the media center. Bini wasn’t in the best of moods — he has been sick and throwing up the last couple of days; I washed my hands upon hearing this, having shaken his hand earlier — but it turns out he’s big into motivating his team with the arts. In 2009, Bini wrote a tune called “The Song of the Coach,” which the French team sings before most games, and he likes showing his players motivational clips from the films Dead Poets Society and (no joke) Any Given Sunday.
Is he the French Al Pacino? We’ll find out on Wednesday.
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