[WOMEN'S WORLD CUP SPOTLIGHT] As the only member of the 2011 squad whose playing career dates back to the glory days of the 1999 championship team that enthralled its country, defender Christie Rampone is probably best versed to compare then and now.
But as captain, she’d rather talk about how the team has changed in the past four years, since Pia Sundhage took over as head coach after the U.S. placed third at the 2007 Women’s World Cup.
“We have technical girls, and we have some with the old mentality, who grew up in the USA-mentality way,” says Rampone, 36, who since 1999 has borne two children and won Olympic gold medals in 2004 and 2008. “Pia has brought players with flair, more of a European style. Our work has been in combining the two.”
That change is just one cited by the players who grew up watching and idolizing the ’99 team, and on Sunday can win back that title. Germany triumphed in 2003 and 2007; the former victory, accomplished in the U.S., added extra incentive for the Americans to knock off the host on their way to the central podium.
Instead, the Germans are watching, knocked off sensationally in a riveting quarterfinal by Japan, whose storybook run to the final four months after an earthquake and tsunami devastated the northeast section of the country has mesmerized fans around the world. The Americans didn’t seem to be generating much buzz, even in their own country, until Abby Wambach’s header hit the net in the 122nd minute of their own quarterfinal match with Brazil last Sunday. “USA, USA, this is your wake-up call.”
In the time since, all has changed.
That goal, in a late landslide of feverish on-line voting, won the ESPY Best Play award. The announcement came Wednesday, a few hours after the USA subdued another stubborn foe, France, by scoring twice in three minutes to break open a 1-1 game. The media blitz intensified, much of it weaving the past few days into a fabric 12 years old.
You can’t blame the American players if they’re a bit exasperated about all the references to 1999; they’ve all been working and playing -- and there have been four major competitions and two domestic women’s leagues -- since then, even if much of the media attention vaporized along the way.
References to the presence of ’99 veterans Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy, Kate Markgraf, Briana Scurry and Mia Hamm, who are working the event as TV commentators and looking over their shoulders, as it were, is a distraction they don’t really need.
Still, it’s fun to reminisce about much younger days. Most of the players were high-school age or younger way back then.
“I remember that ’99 World Cup and watching the final game with my soccer teammates at someone’s house having a party,” said defender Rachel Buehler, 25, who grew up in Southern California and attended Stanford, as did Foudy. “It’s awesome that those girls who are my idols are talking about that. It’s such an honor to kind of have kind a similar opportunity to win a World Cup for our country as well.”
Wisely, Sundhage has been reminding the players of their own place in history, which only they can determine.
“I think everybody is so proud of what this team has done for the country, if you look at ’91, ’96, ’99,” says Sundhage, a former Swedish international. “But you can’t win by looking back. I come from Sweden and I can imagine how it is for Americans, what it’s like to look at players like Kristine Lilly, or Mia Hamm. That is something that is a big advantage when you go forward, but that said, you can imagine how it feels when we accomplish something great, and hopefully that will be the gold medal.”
Defender Ali Krieger, 26, grew up in Northern Virginia and played at Penn State before heading overseas to play in the German women’s Bundesliga for FFC Frankfurt. That city hosts the final Sunday; in addition to preparing for the biggest game of her life, Krieger – who debuted with the national team three and a half years ago in Sundhage’s first game in charge – is serving as the team’s resident tour guide. Sightseeing is a welcome distraction; what happened 12 years ago in the Rose Bowl isn’t.
“We are different from the 1999 team that won the World Cup,” she says. “We respect them, without question. We looked up to all of those players, from Brandi Chastain to Kristine Lilly to Mia Hamm and so on and so forth, there are so many names.
“Each one of us has so much respect for them, but we are a different team, we are a different generation, we are in a different time. No one can really repeat that, in that sense, because we’re trying to write our own story. We’re trying to write a new story for U.S. soccer to enjoy and women’s football around the world to enjoy.”