Once again, US soccer is enjoying its time in the sports spotlight. The seventh FIFA Women’s World Cup championship tournament began on June 6 and will continue through July 5. The host team is Canada. It is Canada’s initial turn as host, and only the third time the tournament will be played in North America. (The US was the host in 1999 and 2003, the only occasions in which a country has hosted tournaments consecutively.) The venues for the matches are Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Moncton. You will note the absence of Toronto, which, incredibly, had to decline the honor due to a scheduling conflict it could not resolve.
Although soccer, or football as it known throughout the rest of the world, is the most popular sport in the world, its popularity in the US is spotty and inconsistent. American boys and girls play it in youth leagues, high schools and colleges, but serious professionals normally have to journey overseas to compete at the highest levels. For the most part, the US media and the general public only focus on the sport during the Olympics and World Cups.
The field for this tournament was expanded from 16 teams to 24. 134 teams competed in various qualifying tournaments to earn one of 23 spots. Canada, as host, automatically qualified. The field is divided into six groups of four each, who play each other round-robin. The top two teams in each group plus the four best third place finishers qualify for the knockout round. In the knockout round teams are seeded based upon their records, so it would behoove one to win its bracket. As I write this, the US is first in its bracket. .
North Korea was not permitted to compete. After several of its players tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs during the 2011 tournament, it was banned from participating in 2015, the first such time for a women’s soccer team.
This will be the first tournament to be played on artificial turf. Predictably this has sparked a concern over the greater potential for injuries. American football fans will be familiar with this issue. This is not without merit, as experience has demonstrated that artificial turf has caused some severe injuries in that sport.
Down through the years, the US team has been very successful and has done its part to “grow” the sport in the US. It has won two World Cups, four Olympic gold medals and ten Algarve Cups, including nine of the last 13. Perhaps, the team’s signature moment came in the final match of the 1999 World Cup when it defeated China in a shootout. The game was watched by over 90,000 fans in the Rose Bowl , the largest crowd ever for a women’s sporting event, as well as countless more worldwide. What a boost for the sport! Anyone who saw it will never forget Brandi Chastain’s “unique” celebration after scoring the winning goal. The famous image of her celebrating exultantly while on her knees stripped down to a sports bra was featured on newspapers, magazines and television programs all around the world. Apparently, Brandi was not a disciple of former NFL football head coach, Tom Landry’s, who was not a fan of what he felt were excessive celebrations. He would admonish his players to “act like you’ve been there before.” Can you imagine if twitter and U-Tube had existed back then?
Incidentally, for the benefit of you more casual soccer fans, the Algarve Cup is a major annual invitational tournament hosted by the Portuguese Football Federation. Its name is derived from the Algarve region of the country where the tournament is played.
The US team has twice been selected as the US Olympic Committee’s “Team of the Year” (1997 and 1999). In 1999 “Sports Illustrated” named the team the “Sportsman of the Year.” FIFA has ranked the team #1 or 2 in the world every year since 2008. Currently, it is #2. Two of its long-time stars, Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers, have been included on the list of the 125 greatest living soccer players.
This year’s team includes some familiar stars, such as Hope Solo, the goalie, Christie Rampone, Shannon Boxx and Abbey Wambeth, who are veterans of past Olympic gold medal teams. Some observers have criticized the team as being too old as nine of the 23 players are 30 or older, but I would call it a nice blend of youth and experience. Most observers have designated the team as one of the co-favorites, along with Japan and Germany. Hopefully, they will come through once again.