In 1999, I was one of several hundred fans at RFK Stadium in Washington watching US national team women’s soccer players who were, oh, about 10 years older than I was at the time. My parents had bought tickets to the match between Team USA and Brazil. It was exciting, fast and inspiring.
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Twelve years later, I am sitting in Wembley Stadium on Thursday, surrounded by 80,000-plus fans watching a different roster that’s, oh, about 10 years younger than I am — but that same feeling of excitement engulfs me.
When I arrived at Wembley Stadium, it was perfect soccer weather, a perfect pitch and a perfect crowd, but my mind shut all of that out and traveled back to that moment when I played soccer for the University of Miami. It was our pregame ritual to sit in silence in a pitch-dark room and listen only to the words of Phil Collins’ "In the Air Tonight."
My mind went back there Thursday. The pregame anticipation, the suspense, the nerves. It all came back. I felt the butterflies just as I did back in college, high school and middle school before stepping onto the pitch. It’s as if the game never left me.
Since my last time on the pitch, US women’s soccer has certainly evolved. The players seem much more physical, larger in size, and to be more deadly in the air.
Just look at an Abby Wambach. She embodies everything a 21st century soccer player is about. In 10 years, the gap has started to close between the United States and the rest of the world (women speaking). Japan, as it showcased Thursday and in last year’s World Cup, is a magical team to watch. It’s beautiful soccer, not the kickball that I remember.
Women’s soccer has arrived, But, sadly, only for moments like this, it seems.
An Olympic-record 80,203 fans for the sport witnessed the USA’s win, but what happens when they walk out of the stadium?
Sure, for a few days the USA’s gold-medal victory over Japan will capture the hearts of young girls all over the country, as it did mine back in 1999. And, yes, it will certainly capture news headlines. But when the Olympics are no longer center stage, historically women’s soccer returns to the back burner.
This is a harsh reality.
Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach and Hope Solo have gained star power, but with the US women’s professional league having folded, where will these names go?
If future Wambachs and Morgans want to play at the next level, it most likely will have to be overseas. Sad, but true. The reality is often hard to swallow, especially for fans, and former players like myself.
Americans got their revenge Thursday against a Japanese team it lost to in last year’s World Cup final — and we will remember this redemption.
To have this moment down the road, US soccer needs more than just fair-weather fans.
Who will become the next Abby Wambach, the next Alex Morgan and so on with the future of the sport in peril in our own backyard?
If this USA team could redeem itself against Japan, we, as fans, can, too. Bring on the longevity of American women’s soccer.