- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 17, 2003

CHARLOTTESVILLE — They have grown up together, traveled around the world, won and lost and won again. They’ve shared sweat and tears, goals and glory, packed stadiums and empty hotel rooms. They’ve been teammates for more than a decade. And kicking each other in the shins for nearly as long.

Following this year’s Women’s World Cup, however, the famed thirtysomething core of the United States national soccer team — Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly and Joy Fawcett — likely will go their separate ways.

And to hear Fawcett tell it, it won’t be the soccer that she misses most.

“I’ll mostly miss my friends, my teammates,” said the 35-year-old defender and three-time Cup veteran. “You still love the game, you still are competitive, you still have that drive to play. But it’s the people that bring me back.”

With all four players competing in their final World Cup — the U.S. opens play Sunday against Sweden at RFK Stadium — this year’s tournament will serve as the domestic finale for the sport’s Greatest Generation, a groundbreaking group that won two world titles while making women’s soccer a brief but brilliant pop culture phenomenon.

And with the WUSA abruptly suspending operations Tuesday, the Cup also could be their last hurrah, even though next year’s Olympics remain a possibility.

“You don’t think about that,” said Fawcett, a team co-captain along with Foudy. “We want to bring things to the fans, put on a good show, make this a great event. Just wanting to play well in front of your fans, here in the United States, is awesome. To be able to do that twice in my career, you just don’t get to do that.”

Few athletes, male or female, have managed the level of success enjoyed by Fawcett and company, the only players to appear in all 18 of the national team’s Cup matches. As teenagers, they were part of a U.S. squad that captured the very first women’s Cup tournament in China in 1991.

Five years later, Hamm was the premier striker, Fawcett the top defender and Lilly and Foudy vital cogs of a team that won gold at the Atlanta Olympics, attracting crowds of 60,000-plus along the way. Next came the 1999 World Cup, a three-week joyride that ended with the squad earning an overtime victory over China in the championship match at the Rose Bowl.

That contest — best remembered for midfielder Brandi Chastain’s sports bra-baring celebration following her game-winning penalty kick — drew President Clinton and 90,184 other spectators, the largest crowd in the history of women’s sports.

It also lifted women’s soccer into the public eye, transforming the Americans into bona fide celebrities. Hamm became an endorsement superstar. Behind $100million in corporate backing, the WUSA was launched in 2000, with Hamm, Foudy, Lilly and Fawcett all acting as founding players.

Foudy, unofficial spokeswoman of the group, even served on a recent presidential commission that reviewed Title IX, the law that bans sex discrimination at schools receiving federal funds and has spurred much of the recent growth in women’s sports.

All in all, Fawcett acknowledged, she and her contemporaries have come a long way since the 1991 World Cup, in which current national team coach April Heinrichs was an active player and just one reporter greeted the triumphant squad at the airport upon its return to the United States.

“There’s changes over the years,” Fawcett said. “You’re more confident going into a big game or a big tournament. You know your teammates better. You know their tendencies better. But you still have that excitement. You still get that nervousness when you go out there. That doesn’t change.”

Heinrichs is counting on that excitement — and that confidence — to carry the Americans in this year’s tournament. Though the U.S. team features talented young players such as Aly Wagner and Washington Freedom star Abby Wambach, veterans like Lilly are perhaps the team’s biggest strength.

To wit: Most remember Chastain’s penalty kick and goalkeeper Briana Scurry’s diving save in the shootout portion of the 1999 Cup final. But few recall Lilly’s goal-saving header in the first overtime, a savvy defensive play that made the dramatic finish possible.

“As we go into this World Cup, I think we know what we are going to get,” Heinrichs said. “We know we have leaders that will play in big moments. And we know we have a large portions of players on our team that have World Cup experience and know what is in front of them.”

Experience also should help the Americans cope with the hype and hoopla that comes with playing at home. Though the tournament was originally scheduled to take place in China, concerns about SARS prompted a last-minute move to the United States.

Beyond the usual distractions of the media asking for time and friends and family asking for tickets, the U.S. squad is saddled with a strenuous group play travel schedule — three games, three cities, eight days — designed to maximize the team’s exposure.

The Americans open their championship defense at RFK, then travel to Philadelphia next Thursday to take on Nigeria, followed by a Sept.28 match against North Korea in Columbus, Ohio.

In addition, the U.S. team now carries the dimming hopes of the WUSA, which theoretically could be revived if the Cup tournament generates enough interest to entice potential league sponsors.

“That’s not our focus,” Fawcett said. “Our focus is the World Cup. Hopefully out of that will stem more interest, get people to step up to the plate and realize that they’re losing a great thing if they let it go.”

Barring the resumption of a league to call their own or a trip to the Athens Games, the Fantastic Four faces a future without soccer — and without one another — for the first time in a long time. A really long time, actually, given that Hamm has been on the national team for 16 years and Lilly has played in more international soccer games (255) than any other player.

So what’s next besides soccer? Hamm has talked about spending more time with her fiancee, Boston Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. Fawcett has three children. Foudy, the youngest-ever president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, jokes about sipping cocktails on the beach in her hometown of San Diego.

In the meantime, though, there’s a familiar goal in sight — the Cup — and a familiar set of faces making one last shin-kicking push for it.

“It’s not news to any of us that there is a generation of players that has been here for many, many years,” Heinrichs said. “And there will never be another generation like that in terms of talent, personality, charisma, leadership and experience.”

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