It was, without exaggeration, one of the more thrilling sports moments of the past 15 years, if not longer. On a penalty kick, Brandi Chastain, a midfielder for the U.S. women’s soccer team, fired a left-footed laser past Chinese goaltender Gao Hong, giving the Americans a victory in the 1999 World Cup. On American soil, in front of over 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl and millions more on national television, Chastain joyously tore off her shirt, exposing what has become the most famous sports bra in history. Guys who always swore off women’s sports cheered. Thousands of young girls learned that they too could bask in the applause. The team landed on the cover of TIME.
“When I think about it now, I still get teary,” says Kristine Lilly, the forward whose critical head-save stymied a Chinese shot on goal and kept the Americans alive in sudden-death overtime. “We had such an impact on people’s lives. It was so much bigger than sports.”
Twelve years later, the U.S. is again competing in the women’s soccer World Cup, in Germany. And as we approach a relatively stagnant period on the American sports calendar I can’t help but wonder if a U.S. women’s team can capture the affection of fans once again.
After all, with baseball slouching towards the All-Star break and football and basketball mired in lockouts, our attention is up for grabs — and the American women could be a great story. As greedy guys, both owners and players, fight over their millions to the dismay of their loyal fans, the American women are vying for their first World Cup since that magical summer of 1999. The current team is loaded with talent: Hope Solo is arguably the best goalkeeper in the tournament. Forward Abby Wambach and midfielder Heather O’Reilly may not enjoy the name recognition, or gaudy statistics, of a Mia Hamm, but both can dominate a game. “Abby is a beast,” says Lilly. “And I love Heather’s fight.”
But the U.S. is no sure bet. After breezing through matches against Columbia and North Korea, a 2-1 loss to Sweden on Wednesday forces the Americans to square off against Brazil in Sunday’s quarterfinals: Brazil has Marta, a one-named highlight-film in the tradition of Ronaldo and Ronaldinho and the best player in the world. Both O’Reilly (groin) and Wambach (Achilles) are nursing injuries.
The competition is tougher as well. Since 1999, women’s teams around the globe have caught up to the Americans. In the last two World Cups, the U.S. has finished third. (Germany, the 2011 host nation, won both). Still, the U.S. has a clear title shot: before the Sweden game, the Americans hadn’t given up a goal.
The more difficult challenge for the U.S. women’s team might be to grab some of the cultural cachet the men’s game enjoys. Last year’s men’s World Cup, which set a slew of TV ratings records in the U.S., vouched for Americans’ healthy soccer appetite. The Internet and outlets like Fox Soccer Channel allow fans to keep tabs on global games. Americans are more sophisticated now about the sport, and let’s face it, there’s a “hip” factor associated with world soccer knowledge. People fancy themselves a wee bit smarter if they can name-drop Leo Messi at a cocktail party.
Women’s pro leagues, meanwhile, receive a tiny fraction of the support that the men enjoy. If the Americans push into the finals, or win the title in some sort of exciting fashion, you’ll hear plenty of talk about advances in the women’s pro game here in the U.S. But it’s worth remembering what happened to the old WUSA, a women’s league that tried to capture the outpouring of love for the ’99 team and failed. The league opened in 2001 and folded in 2003. The expectations were too high, and that league overspent itself into the ground.
A new league, Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), debuted in 2009, with more realistic goals and smaller facilities. But that league has also struggled to make an impact on sports fans at large; several teams have folded, and attendance dropped last season.
“There are so many things clamoring for our sports attention,” says Paul Swaangard, managing director of the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. “The men’s game is fighting the women’s game for mind share. It’s hard to see both coming out as winners.”
It’s quite likely that the women’s game will hold our attention for the next week, then return to its place as a niche sport. And for some, that may be fine. Because if an American player scores some athletic goal in the final, if Solo makes a sick save to clinch a victory, if one of the Americans come close to enjoying some Brandi Chastain moment, we’ll still remember it forever.
And what’s better than that?