Mia Hamm leads the U.S. quest for a second World Cup title
Soccer, a sport traditionally given little attention in the United States, will have its time in the sun starting on June 19. Unlike last summer, though, American soccer fans won't have to watch a mediocre US squad be outplayed by superior World Cup opponents.
US forward Mia Hamm, puts the ball past Chinese goaltender Gao Hong, in what hopefully is a preview of the upcoming Women's World Cup tournament.
This time, it's the women's turn. In case you didn't already know, the U.S. is home to one of the best teams in the world, and this year they'll have the home-field advantage. The third FIFA Women's World Cup, billed as the largest women's sports event in the world, kicks off in eight cities around the country on Saturday, June 19.
Sixteen nations from around the world, up from the 12 that competed in the first two Women's World Cups (in Sweden in 1995 and China in 1991), will square off over the coming weeks. The World Cup final will be played July 10 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. The US has a chance at redemption following the men's team's disastrous showing in France at the men's World Cup a year ago.
Despite his best efforts to squash talk of the US as the Cup favorite, the pressure is on American Head Coach Tony DiCicco to recapture the World Cup trophy that the US lost to Norway in 1995.
A stumble by his squad, especially here on their home soil, would damage not only the television ratings, but the future of a proposed women's professional league. The current group is better than the 1991 Cup-winning squad, as well as the team that won the Olympic gold medal in Atlanta, so anything short of a total victory will be a total failure.
Here is a breakdown of what to watch in the women's tournament:
- Mia Hamm. The reluctant hero, Hamm is widely considered the best player in the world. Whether she likes it or not, this tournament could be the vehicle that propels her to a new level of super-stardom and starts to garner her millions more of the big-time endorsement dollars that she is beginning to taste.
Hamm is the prime scoring option in the American attack and she'll get most of the glory if the U.S. wins it all.
- Nigeria. The surprising Super Eagles beat heavily favored China 4-3 in a closed-door friendly just before the World Cup. Patience Avre scored three goals, including the game-winner. Avre and "Marvelous" Mercy Akide lead the potent Nigerian offense, and with their win over China should put some scare into opponents.
The United States faces Nigeria on June 24 at Soldier Field in Chicago. The game will be televised on ESPN at 8:30 p.m.
- The goaltenders. The keeper battle between China's acrobatic Gao Hong and Sweden's statuesque Ulrika Karlsson should be fun to watch. Both have been called the world's best. They should have a great chance to show their talent at the opening night meeting of China and Sweden.
Karlsson could very well have the tougher time of it, though, because she has to face Sun Wen and China's other top scorers. The other elite keepers in the tournament are Norway's Bente Nordby and Denmark's Dorthe Larsen. Look for them as well.
- Michelle Akers. The stalwart at midfield for the U.S. since she switched from striker at the 1996 Olympics, Akers has barely slowed at all despite being diagnosed with chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome. This will be her final World Cup (she's planning on retiring after the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney), and she'll want to go out with style.
- Norway vs. China. This likely semifinal match-up, to be played on July 4, should be intriguing. Norway is the defending World Cup champ and China is one of the best squads in the world.
Norway's Hege Riise is one of the world's top playmakers but her squad will miss the presence of Gro Espeseth, who was recently felled by a knee injury. If all goes as expected, the winner of this match will play the U.S. in the final.