On June 23, Landon Donovan paused America with his 91st minute goal against Algeria. The strike sent the United States national team into the second round of the 2010 World Cup, landed the midfielder on the back page of the New York Post, and spawned wild celebrations in bars across the nation. It launched the men's team into the spotlight.
Eleven years before there was Donovan, there was Brandi Chastain. And, yes, her sports bra.
After 90 minutes of regulation and half an hour of extra time in the 1999 World Cup final, the United States found themselves deadlocked 0-0 with the favored Chinese. More than 90,000 fans packed the Rose Bowl and millions more followed along on television. Two shots after American goalkeeper Brianna Scurry saved Liu Ying's penalty attempt, Chastain stepped to the spot with a chance to win the game. Her shot eluded Gao Hong and found the back of the net. The Californian sunk to her knees, whipped off her uniform top, and pumped her fists, creating a tableau that would appear in newspapers around the world and on the cover of Sports Illustrated later that week.
A decade later, it's still fair to say that moment marked the peak of women's soccer in the US.
Although the national team remains the world's No. 1 ranked team and earned Olympic gold in 2004 and 2008, they haven't won a World Cup since Chastain, Mia Hamm, and their teammates had their day in Pasadena, They won't be favored in this summer's tournament, an event they almost failed to qualify for after losing to Mexico for the first time ever. "When I watch our team, I don't see a plan," Chastain, now a commentator for ESPN, says. "And I don't see a go-to player."
Women's Professional Soccer—the second attempt at establishing a viable, world-class league in the US after Women's United Soccer Association failed in 2003—features the best talent from around the world (and pays the best salaries), but saw three teams fold in 2010 and another go on indefinite hiatus. It will begin the 2011 season with just six squads, all based on the East Coast. League officials are confident new investors will enter after the Women's World Cup, and ownership groups in cities including Los Angeles and Dallas have expressed interest, but WPS is struggling to find traction as per game attendance fell from 4,600-plus in 2009 to 3,500-plus last season. Steve Goff, who covers soccer for the Washington Post, recently noted, "WPS is becoming a cause instead of a business. Can't sustain a pro sports league on good intentions." His thoughts echo those of many who cover the sport.
Women's soccer in the US certainly isn't dying—there's hope for both the national team and WPS—but it's not thriving on the field or in the bank books, either. The overwhelming promise of that perfect moment on the Rose Bowel field feels long gone.
So what happened?
Partially, the issue of expectation is to blame.
"There was a perception in 1999 and 2000 that women's soccer was more popular than men's soccer, but it was never true," Scott French, a journalist who's covered the women's game for two decades, says. "That team was popular. That event [the '99 World Cup] was popular. Mia was popular. But women's soccer was never more popular than the men's game."
Chastain's epic celebration didn't occur in a vacuum; it was the culmination of many factors. The World Cup took place on American soil, leading to increased domestic interest and favorable start times for games. Nike put its marketing force behind the women's team, specifically superstar Mia Hamm who was the Greatest Of All Time. She may have made a somewhat reluctant pitchwoman behind the scenes, but you never knew that watching her television spots or media appearances. The Chinese team provided the perfect foil. Neither the stakes nor the drama of penalty kicks could have been higher.
"It was sort of the perfect storm," Chastain says. "We walked right into it, without really knowing."
The circumstances of Donovan's goal this summer were similar. ESPN marketed the hell out of the tournament, as did Nike with America's G.O.A.T. The US side played the underdog role beautifully, tying evil England before being robbed of a potential game-winning goal against Slovenia. That set the stage for the final group match with Algeria in which the stakes—tie and go home, win and advance—couldn't get simpler. Just like '99, soccer transcended the sports world.
But unlike the men's program, which continues to improve after decades of irrelevance, the American women's team was beginning to lose its dominant place in the world order back at the turn of the century. They won two of the last three World Cups and the 1996 Gold medal, but countries such as Brazil, Germany, Norway, and Sweden were developing talented teams. Their players had the benefit of growing up in soccer cultures, while the Americans—like their male counterparts—relied primarily on athleticism. "To me, we're not the No. 1 soccer country on earth and we haven't been for a decade," French says. The US finished a distance third in the 2003 and 2007 World Cups. Additionally, the Under-17 team failed to qualify for the 2010 youth world championship while the Under-20s lost to Nigeria in the quarterfinals, a very early exit for a Stars and Stripes squad.
The trend continued off the field as well. As Hamm, Chastain, Julie Foudy, Michelle Akers, and other stars of the early teams retired, the squad lost its captivating personality. Although they remained one of the best in the world, interest died down. "[Women's soccer] has a different role in society now," Alex Morgan, currently one of the team's youngest members, says. "Women's soccer grew so fast during the 1999 World Cup. Right now we're trying to gradually gain supporters and fans."
Without Morgan, they might have an even harder time accumulating fans. After the shock loss to Mexico—the Red, White, and Blue's first defeat in two years—they needed to beat the Italians in a two-game playoff to qualify for the World Cup. They traveled to Padua, Italy for the first tilt where the 21-year-old forward from California tallied the game-winner in the 94th minute. Abby Wambach, the American's consensus best player, called it one of the "top-five most important goals in US history." The Stars and Stripes prevailed 1-0 in the return leg and won a trip to the World Cup this summer.
(Another disappointing sign for women's soccer, noted by Morgan, Chastain, and French: Neither the two matches against Italy nor the game against Mexico were shown on television.)
In Germany, the Americans will find themselves in the Group of Death with world No. 4 Sweden, No. 6 North Korea, and Colombia. It's a tough road, even for a team that's 57-2-6 since the end of 2007. Coach Pia Sundhage, in charge since late '07, is attempting to instill more technical flair into the side. Morgan, who's scored four goals in her eight appearances, says the manager is making the team better, but Chastain isn't sure.
"When you're feeling threatened [on defense by the opposing team], you kick it long. And when you need a goal, you kick it long and hope there's a scramble and someone kicks it in. I think our players are better than that. When Mia Hamm got the ball, her eye was on getting to the goal. The players around her knew that and they set themselves up to be helpful." Chastain says. "Pia says our players aren't good enough, but then my question becomes you picked the players. Why don't you pick the better players? Or make [the ones you pick] better?"
Sundhage did choose three new players to participate during a six-day, 26-women camp in January, and she'll get a good look at her team in China's Four Nations Tournament. The American coach may not have the tip-top-level talent that her predecessors had at their disposal, but she definitely has a deep pool of players from which to draw.
WPS can claim some credit for this improved depth. On the field, it's the best women's soccer in the world. In 2010, some 20 internationals joined virtually every skilled American player and the league helped women such as Becky Sauerbrunn and Yael Averbuch improve to national team-caliber. Salaries average around $27,000 (roughly double that for international stars and US national team members) and are the highest in the world, but they might decrease as teams strive to cut costs. But even so, the level of play will remain high.
"No one has questioned that we have had the best product in the world," WPS spokesman Rob Penner says. "Even if player salaries go down a little bit next year, we're still committed to bringing in the best."
The difficulties have come off the field. On December 13, the Chicago Red Stars announced they were suspending operations. Although they hope to return for the 2012 season, they followed the Los Angeles Sol, St. Louis Athletica, and 2010 champions FC Gold Pride who all bowed out due to financial reasons. Only a last-minute investor saved the Washington Freedom from going under as well (and he wants the franchise to rebrand with a crazy name and split time between D.C. and Florida).
"It's been okay for the first two years but between the economy and women's soccer in general, [WPS] hasn't grasped the attention that we all hoped it would," Kristen Graczyk, a major figure in the creation of a players' union and former member of the Gold Pride, says. "It's one of those things that the clock's ticking. If we had more time and people would come out and support it, we would be okay."
The question is how much time does WPS have? Commissioner Tonya Antonucci stepped down in September. The league office was reorganized and should turn a profit in 2011, according to former Sky Blue FC general manager Gerry Marrone, but owners are tired of losing between $1 and $2 million a year. (Although you might question the reality of their expectations. A decade and a half later, most Major League Soccer teams are still in the red, and the league survived because Lamar Hunt and Phil Anschutz owned more than half the squads at one point and spent $100 million of their own money.) Total WPS attendance only fell from 305,000 in 2009 to 301,000 a year later, but increasing the season length from 18 to 24 games hurt per game figures. The 2011 campaign will return to a dozen and a half games, contested between teams located in Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. The league can survive, but it needs to keep all six franchises afloat and capitalize on any and all interest generated by the World Cup.
WPS also hopes to solve some lingering issues with its players. Hope Solo, one of the biggest stars and certainly its largest personalities, promised never to play for the league again after a playoff loss during which she felt the referee robbed her Atlanta Beat team. She backed off and the American No. 1 goalkeeper will return—she needs the practice as much as anyone as she recovers from shoulder surgery—but the bigger problem is the one of salaries. The owners plan to decrease player pay to save money, but the WPS currently boasts the best level of the play worldwide because of the ability to hand out livable wages. The women are willing to take pay cuts, but within reason.
"The players aren't out there asking for money because they want money. It's more about keeping the integrity of the league," Graczyk says. "We all have to pay our bills but we want to uphold the integrity of the league. If players aren't getting paid or getting paid minimally, people well look at it as a semi-professional league."
Two leagues—the Women's Premier Soccer League and the W-League—exist in the tier just below WPS, taking up the semi-professional space. Players on these teams need additional jobs to make ends meet, as do women who play abroad in leagues such as Germany's Bundesliga. French, who covered WUSA for the three seasons before it went under, believes WPS will need to tone down its ambitions of being a national entity and will only survive by narrowing its focus.
"My take is increasingly that it's like the WPSL and W-League. Teams will come and teams will go," he says. "The make up this year isn't what it will be three years from now. You have to become regional because travel costs are just too great. How well are you able to pay these players? Can you align your league so it's going opposite European leagues so everybody in the world can play here and in Europe or be college coaches? I just don't see a way to have a fully professional league."
Some involved with the discussion aren't so negative about the future prospects. At least one person believes a recently launched website might be a key. "If ESPNW is truly interested in becoming a channel on television, in my opinion the play here is for the team owners to go to ESPN and say we'll give you a portion of the league to be your flagship brand," former Sky Blue Marrone says. "I would sell my soul to ESPN to get the coverage that they would provide… If we had the breadth of ESPN, we would instantly have a huge foothold."
This summer, the WPS will take a break while many of its talented players travel to Germany to partake in the World Cup. The Americans will be there, front and center on ESPN's coverage. They will be seeking both victory and recognition. Definitions of a successful run vary widely, but a little drama never hurts. Still, a simple win would be okay, too.
"Do you have to have a moment like [the '99 final] for it to be a success? I don't think so," Chastain says.
But you have to ask another question: If such a moment did occur, who would be watching?
Photo by JMRosenfeld, from Flickr.