By Mike Woitalla
One thing great soccer players have in common is that they grow up with a favorite player or two whom they idolize and emulate.
In the backyard or on the field, they pretend to be that player, mimicking his moves or trying to score the way their hero does. They wear his number, perhaps get a replica jersey, or even a similar haircut.
Watching masters at their craft and trying to imitate them is, no doubt, a pretty good way to improve. And having a hero in the sport they play surely increases children’s enthusiasm for it.
But despite soccer’s popularity among American girls, we know they watch less soccer than the boys do and are less likely to embrace a soccer role model.
Before this Women’s World Cup, if you surveyed American girls on their favorite female player, Mia Hamm would be by far the most common answer, even from girls much too young to have watched Hamm in action.
Hamm peaked more than a decade ago and retired in 2004. The young girls who name Hamm know her from books, YouTube, or because they’ve heard her name a lot. They’re long overdue for a new female soccer hero.
Has this Women’s World Cup created one?
Thanks to the USA’s dramatic win over Brazil in the quarterfinal, mainstream media coverage of the U.S. women finally came close to what we saw in 1999 when Hamm and Co., won the title on home soil.
The replays of Abby Wambach and Hope Solo’s feats against Brazil were replayed so much that you can expect their names to be remembered.
Wambach scored again in the semis and the final, when she also hit the crossbar with a thundering left-footed strike. What also endeared one to the 31-year-old Wambach was how she reacted to her misses. The 5-foot-11 striker didn’t swear or pound the ground when her shots went off target. She actually smiled before sprinting back into action, as if she was thinking to herself, “That didn’t go so well. No biggie. Maybe next time.”
That Solo is a goalkeeper limits her impact. But for keepers she was terrific. I didn’t see her scream at her teammates as is so common among keepers who want to deflect blame when scored upon or for some reason don’t understand that making saves is in their job description.
Lauren Cheney was for much of the tournament the main orchestrator of U.S. attacks. She scored twice and assisted on three goals in Germany. She plays smart soccer and, at only 23 years old, could get even better.
Megan Rapinoe, the 26-year-old winger who set up Wambach’s last-gasp goal against Brazil, two others, and scored against Colombia, has fan-club potential – because when she gets the ball one expects that something exciting could happen. She was used as a sub until the final, when she set up the first U.S. goal.
And then there’s Alex Morgan. The Californian played in five of the USA’s six games in Germany – coming off the bench each time. She scored the final goal of the USA’s 3-1 win in the semifinal against France and in the final, which she entered at halftime, she put the Americans ahead with a terrific left-footed strike and later assisted on Wambach’s goal with a well-placed cross.
Since debuting last year Morgan has scored nine times, including a crucial goal in the World Cup qualifying playoffs against Italy. The 22-year-old Californian, the youngest member of the U.S. squad in Germany, has only started two of the 24 U.S. games she appeared in.
The Japanese, of course, came back and won from the penalty spot. We’ll see whether the magazine covers and talk-show appearances that popularized the ’99 women will be there for runners-up.
The WPS -- Morgan plays for the Western New York Flash – doesn’t get much attention. But 2012 is an Olympic year. Morgan should surely be a starter from now on and should be the frontrunner, when the spotlight does shine again on the U.S. women, to be the next Mia.
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United in Oakland, Calif. His youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)