By this time next week, the United States Women’s National Team, propelled by a desire to achieve past glory and end a near two-decade quest for their sport’s ultimate prize, will reintroduce themselves to the world by participating in the seventh edition of the FIFA Women’s World Cup. But first things first: the team let their hair down to introduce themselves to the media and fans one last time before heading up to Canada.
All 23 playing members of the squad and the coaches made it into the New York City area, starting at the New York Marriott Marquis to participate in the national team Media Day on Wednesday. And judging by the the number of journalists that descended upon Times Square to get to know the team better, this was as good of an indicator as any of how the game has grown, let alone how important the upcoming next few weeks are going to be to the team.
“We know that we are part of this crazy growth stage (in the sport’s popularity),” said midfielder and team leader Megan Rapinoe during the press conference. “Four years ago, before the last World Cup, we were not doing this (Media Day), and I think we had like five or six thousand fans at our send-off game. We’re really proud of where we are now, and hopefully that just keeps growing.”
Saturday’s send-off game against South Korea at nearby Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. sold out, all of them hoping that the players they saw on the pitch will, in two months time, win the World Cup for the first time since the magical run of 1999 that took place stateside. Since Mia Hamm and Co. brought home that title, the Red, White and Blue have followed that up with two third-place finishes and a heartbreaking second-place finish in the 2011 World Cup after a shootout loss to Japan in the final.
Most fans of the USWNT trace their initial allegiances to the squad back to the 1999 campaign, famous for the play of the team, the stars on the roster and the marketing campaign urging then-President Bill Clinton to attend the World Cup Final. Since then, a new, even more soccer-knowledgeable generation of fans have spawned as the game continues to grown exponentially from coast-to-coast. Despite that, a good number of those enthusiasts either weren’t cognizant of what happened in 1999 or weren’t even born yet.
The players say it’s time to make some new memories to last a lifetime.
“I think we’re at a point now where, if we win this thing, I mean, this could be huge,” said fellow midfielder Carli Lloyd, who will be making her third appearance at a World Cup. “And there’s no better time to win it, with the coverage, with social media, and with the fact that we haven’t won it in 16 years. So it’s a great time to win it, I think it’s one of the best environments we could be in, and we’re ready to go after it.”
What also helps with the continuing buildup of the tournament getting underway is where the tournament is located – immediately to the neighbors to our north.
“Being close to Canada, I think it’s going to be even better, because game times will be live and in prime time, and people will be able to watch it instead of getting up at the crack of dawn and seeing a game,” said defender and team captain Christie Rampone, the only holdover from the 1999 World Cup-winning squad. “So I think the timing of this event is definitely going to be a big factor for us.”
Fans will see the United States play, starting June 8, in Group D, almost inarguably the toughest group ever assembled in a Women’s World Cup. Including the U.S., the group includes three of the top 10 teams in the FIFA World Rankings – No. 5 Sweden and No. 10 Australia are the others – and the highest-ranked African nation (Nigeria, No. 33 overall).
“It’s something we know and something we embrace,” midfielder and now three-time World Cup participant Heather O’Reilly said to us about the team being in the so-called Group of Death. “We wouldn’t want any off games. To be the best, you have to beat the best. It’s nothing I don’t think this group can’t handle.”
After opening up against Australia, the U.S. play on June 12 against Sweden, coached by erstwhile U.S. women’s coach Pia Sundhage. During her four-year run as national team coach, Sundhage won two Olympic gold medals as well as garnering that second-place finish at the 2011 FIFA World Cup. A good number of the players currently on the U.S. team blossomed as internationals under Sundhage, including 2011 breakout star Alex Morgan. The familiarity adds intrigue to that contest, but, to the coaching staff, nothing more than that.
“Obviously, I know Pia as a personal friend,” said national team coach Jill Ellis, Sundhage’s former boss when Ellis was an assistant coach on the team. “So I know her very well and have the utmost respect for her as a person and as a coach. In terms of our personnel, I think it’s very different than when Pia was in charge. We’ve got different players involved and we play slightly differently, so I bet she’s probably got her scouts involved scouting us.”
But before the arduous task of starting the World Cup on the right foot, the players got a chance to show off their personality, skills and share some thoughts to over 200 media members, some coming as far from Germany to be part of the meet-and-greet festivities. From defenders Meghan Klingenberg and Becky Sauerbrunn exchanging playful verbal barbs to forward Sydney Leroux photobombing in the background during a separate interview, the team, even with the pressure of expectation on its collective shoulders, can still act as loose as can possibly be before the biggest tournament of their careers.
“I love how the media, and the fans and supporters in general have rallied around our team and around our country, and we can feel it,” said Klingenberg, who will be making her maiden voyage into a World Cup. “We feel the energy. We can feel the support. Going into such a big event like this, it’s important to have that type of backing behind you.”
[Cover photo (Hope Solo & US fans) courtesy of USsoccer.com]