- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2007

The famous names — Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain — have all gone, the Women’s United Soccer Association pro league is a distant memory, and women’s soccer has slipped off the sports radar. That could change in the next few weeks.

The U.S. national team is on a mission to put the women’s game back in the spotlight at the 2007 FIFA World Cup that begins in China tomorrow.

“I’m just excited to get a chance to go over there and show the country who we are and really how good we are,” said star forward Abby Wambach, who is the team’s leading goal scorer this year with 11 goals in 12 games.

The Americans open Group B against North Korea on Tuesday at Chengdu and then later meet Sweden and Nigeria. The group is identical to the U.S. team’s opening round at the 2003 finals where the Americans went 3-0.

In 1999, the U.S. women were on the cover of Sports Illustrated and 90,000 people saw the team win the World Cup final beating China in a thrilling penalty shootout at the Rose Bowl, with 40 million watching the game on television. The success spawned the WUSA and suddenly women’s soccer was popular. However, on the eve of the 2003 World Cup, the WUSA folded and the U.S. team crashed in a 3-0 loss to Germany in the semifinals on Oct. 5 in Portland, Ore.

There was some redemption the following year when the team won the Olympic gold in Athens, but the loss to Germany left a bitter memory.

“For me, personally, my mark scored the first goal that day and I’ve been almost training with that in mind ever since, so I have a little bit of a revenge factor,” Wambach said.

The No. 1-ranked Americans are in an ideal position to bring home the Cup and a victory in China also will help Women’s Soccer LLC, a new women’s professional league set to begin play in 2009.

“What we’re hoping for is the media buzz that we’re going to generate from kicking some serious butt in this World Cup,” said U.S. veteran defender Kate Markgraf, who played on the 1999 championship team.

The Americans have not been beaten in regulation in 47 games going to a 3-1 loss to Denmark in Philadelphia on Nov. 6, 2004. The 2007 team is a good mixture of veterans and newcomers. Veteran Kristine Lilly, who has 126 goals and 100 assists in 331 games, captains a roster with young stars such as Lindsay Tarpley, Lori Chalupny and Heather O’Reilly, who are all hoping to become household names. Twelve players on the team will be competing in their first World Cup.

“In ‘99, we were the best team in our competition,” Markgraf said. “In 2007, in order to win, we’re going to have to be the best team with the way the game has evolved. … I think this team is much more attacking than the old team.”

The U.S. team has won every tournament it has entered in the last two years except for the 2006 Algarve Cup, when the Americans lost to Germany on penalty kicks.

The tournament opens tomorrow with Germany against Argentina in Shanghai.

If the U.S. team wins Group B it will play the runner-up from Group A, which includes Germany, Argentina, Japan and England. What the Americans must avoid is coming in as the runner-up in Group B and having to possibly meet Germany in the quarterfinals.

“Sweden and the North Koreans are good teams and will be difficult to overcome,” Wambach said.

All games will be carried live on ESPN360 and select matches will re-air on ESPNU, ESPN Classic and ESPN2.

“We have a strong-willed team and, yeah, we’re composed of some veterans and more rookies this year, but we’re strong and I think we’re confident going into this World Cup,” Wambach said.

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