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U.S. women in unfamiliar role as World Cup begins

By Steve Almasy,
The legendary Mia Hamm, right, handed over the scoring duties for the U.S. women's soccer team to Abby Wambach in 2004.
The legendary Mia Hamm, right, handed over the scoring duties for the U.S. women's soccer team to Abby Wambach in 2004.
  • U.S. team built a tradition as top women's program in the world
  • Women's World Cup begins Sunday in Germany, with the host nation the clear favorite
  • Experts say other nations have caught up in ability and strategy
  • U.S. making changes to improve youth programs, develop more skilled players

(CNN) -- Mia Hamm had a warning for U.S. soccer as she and others from the golden generation of women's players neared the end of their careers.

Just after the 2003 World Cup, when the United States surprisingly lost to Germany in the semifinals, the normally quiet striker spoke out, saying it was time to take notice of how a lot of other nations were getting much better quickly.

"What I was feeling was that I hoped that all of us -- as players, as a federation, as coaches -- that we don't sit there and use our success to hinder our development," Hamm said recently during an conference call where ESPN announcers previewed this year's Women's World Cup, which begins Sunday. "We needed to continue to recommit ourselves to be better every day."

In the days of Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain, the list of favorites for a major tournament always started with the U.S. And then you could add Norway and China.

Can World Cup spark women's soccer?

The United States won the first World Cup in 1991, and the team's memorable moment came in 1999 when 40 million people watched on television as Chastain ripped home a penalty kick to beat China in the Cup final, then famously ripped off her jersey in celebration.

Women's soccer -- well, at least in the U.S. -- was at its pinnacle. Hamm, who retired in 2004, was doing commercials with Michael Jordan, and thousands of young screaming fans were coming to matches. Everyone expected the United States to win everything and win with flair.

But the success of the American women was helping to make women's soccer more popular around the world. More nations started putting money into their teams.

And while Germany, the host nation, is a clear favorite to win this World Cup, Hamm and Foudy (ESPN's lead analyst for the tournament) said there are more countries with a chance to get to the final.

"The tournament field is as deep as it has ever been," said Foudy, a former U.S. captain. "It's nice to see the women's game continue to grow and get better."

The world catches up

There was a stigma about the daughters around the world playing the macho game of soccer. That's kind of been erased now.
--Tony DiCicco, former U.S. coach

The U.S. team goes into the World Cup as the No. 1 team in the FIFA rankings and as winners of the 2008 Olympic crown. It has one of the best goal scorers (Abby Wambach) and the best goal keeper (Hope Solo).

But most observers said they think that two-time defending champion Germany should win on its home soil. If not, Brazil, led by five-time world player of the year Marta, is the second favorite.

The rest of the soccer world has caught up.

"For years there was a stigma about the daughters around the world playing the macho game of soccer," said former U.S. coach Tony DiCicco. "That's kind of been erased now. Just as American parents always wanted for their daughters' ... first introduction to team sports (to be) in soccer, that's happening around the world."

What's happening in other countries is that women's teams are drawing better athletes to the game and girls who are growing up with soccer as their No. 1 sport are no longer castigated by men, he said. And living in a soccer culture gives those female players an advantage.

They also play in a different system than most places in the United States. Teenagers in many other soccer countries often play for a club, rising in the ranks playing with and against older players, where talent defines the club someone plays for rather than age. In the United States, players are segregated by the year they were born.

"I call it the 'Under Syndrome,' " DiCicco said. "We have U15, U16, even (college-age teams) with Under-21. And you're only going to learn so much in your age group."

As many good players, but not as many great

Long-time college coach John Daly agrees.

He said he has to do more coaching with today's players.

"They get rushed (through the youth system)," he said by phone while standing between fields at a tournament where he was scouting potential players for William & Mary. "We place too much emphasis on winning and not enough on playing."

Daly, an Irishman who has been at the Virginia college since 1984, said that he and other coaches at the tournament were discussing the quality of the players. They all agreed, he said, that while there were a lot more good players to watch, the great ones are harder to find.

"There just aren't any standout players, the kind that make you say, "Who is that No. 4?' " he said.

It's a sentiment that Grant Wahl, a senior writer who covers soccer at Sports Illustrated, echoed. He pointed out that if you chose an all-star team of the best players in the world in 1999, the U.S. would have at least half the players. Now, it'd be just two.

"Talent-wise, the U.S. is not producing -- and you can argue never really has produced -- truly imaginative, creative players on any regular basis," he said, by phone from Houston where he was covering the men's Gold Cup tournament.

Sports Illustrated: Grant Wahl on soccer

The United States still leads the world in number of female players. About 4.9 million played soccer in 2010, according to a survey by the National Sporting Goods Association. (That figure is down from 5.8 million in 2005.)

There are more than 300 NCAA teams. College players tend to be good athletes with good skills, experts said.

But the next great world player, most of them agree, is 17-year-old Yoreli Rincon of Colombia, which has never been known for women's soccer.

The future star for the U.S. team might be 21-year-old Alex Morgan, a top substitute for this squad.

Changes at the top

Wahl noted that it was interesting how the U.S. federation hired a foreign coach, Pia Sundhage.

"After the 2007 World Cup, they went out and got a Swedish coach who was known in her playing days as being a skillful technical player," he said. "And one of her main goals over the past four years has been to increase the skills of the U.S. players and to select players that are not just about athleticism but can play better soccer."

In January, the federation also hired former coach April Heinrichs to oversee its youth program and Jill Ellis, one of Daly's former players and most recently coach at UCLA, to develop standards for the national teams for younger players.

It is the first time the U.S. has had a technical director and development director for its women's programs.

"Everyone's committed to making sure that we continue to give these young soccer players and our women's national team the best opportunities to be successful," said Hamm, who is a member of the U.S. Soccer Federation's task force to improve the women's game.

Professional league surviving -- barely

All of the players on the U.S. team, and about a dozen on the other 15 squads in the Women's World Cup finals, play in the U.S. league, Women's Professional Soccer. It has six teams, all on the East Coast, and average attendance was about 3,600 in 2010, according to Sports Business Daily.

Sports marketing expert Larry DeGaris said that while the league is "challenged," it has a much better chance to succeed than its predecessor, WUSA, which folded after three seasons.

"The WPS is still kind of finding its way, but its business plan is much more grass roots than WUSA and a much better fit," the University of Indianapolis professor said. "I don't think it will go away."

He said he's "bullish" on the future, saying that the league needs not to rely on the attendance of the casual fan who watches games once every four years, but its best customers.

"And women's soccer has some really good ones," he said.

The challenge for the league is to get more media exposure, he said, which in turn will lead to more corporate support.

Would winning be an upset?

The Germans have only lost three times since 2009, all to the United States. The Americans, whose first match is Tuesday against North Korea, have been inconsistent at times, needing a playoff win to qualify for the World Cup finals.

The U.S. lost to Mexico, Sweden (which is in its group) and dark horse England -- just in the past eight months.

Thirteen team members are World Cup rookies, but still experts said they think that with Solo in goal and Wambach as a scoring threat, the U.S. has a good chance.

"The U.S. has had some great games and then some that were sub-par," DiCicco said. "They need to have a World Cup where every game they are playing at their peak.

"And if they do that I think they have a great chance of winning. They just haven't shown that normal consistent excellence that U.S. teams have been known for."

Sports Illustrated: U.S. women's soccer team searching for their own legacy