America's World-Class Soccer

The US men's team may struggle on the global stage, but the women are comfortably leading the pack

WHO needs the World Cup? The United States already has a world-championship soccer squad - the US Women's National Team.

And last weekend, before a modest but still record-breaking crowd of 6,511, the American women added another international victory, the inaugural Chiquita Cup, by defeating Norway in the final, 4-1.

Displaying their trademark aggressiveness and attacking style, the US was undefeated in the week-long, four-team tournament, beating soccer powers Germany (2-1) and China (1-0) as well.

The crowd here at the final was explosive: They shouted, cheered, and stamped their feet. After the game, hundreds of young soccer fans, mostly female, lined the stadium wall in hopes of meeting their favorite players. The American players stayed after the game to sign autographs and pose for pictures with their admirers.

While the US men's team has struggled in world competition, the women have come out on top. Chalk it up to culture, observers say: Women athletes may not get all the support they deserve in this country, but the support they do receive has helped make US women's soccer a world leader.

For all their success, however, the US women have spent very little time in the spotlight. Most American sports fans don't even know that the women's national team won the first-ever Women's World Championship (the equivalent of the men's World Cup) in 1991 in China, and that it is favored to be a repeat champion in Sweden next year.

But lack of recognition hasn't diminished the team's high morale, it seems.

``We all play because we love to play,'' says forward Carin Gabarra, who has been on the national team since its debut in 1985. ``We don't play for the money or the notoriety,'' she adds. ``There's very little of [either].'' Except for a small per diem and a wage-replacement stipend, the US players are not paid.

``Technically, we should be professional players,'' says forward Michelle Akers-Stahl, the team's all-time leading scorer and the spark plug of its high-powered offense. ``I should be making millions,'' she says jokingly, ``but, unfortunately, the women's game has not gone that far yet.''

Currently, the team practices together about once a month. The rest of the time, the women must train on their own. Many of the players are still in college, so they train with their college teams. But for those out of school, training can be difficult.

``When the players who aren't in college go home, they're going home to nothing,'' Akers-Stahl says. ``They don't have a team. They don't have a coach. So we have to create our own training environment.''

A handful of the women, including Akers-Stahl, play semiprofessionally with Sweden's premier league. Many of the older players coach women's soccer at the collegiate level.

With such obstacles to training, how does the US team manage to do so well? One reason is the high caliber of the women's competition here, comparable to world competition.

``One of the problems our men have is that we don't have a league in this country comparable to the foreign leagues,'' says Anson Dorrance, who has been head coach of the women's national team since 1986. ``As a result, our men aren't getting the kind of training and competitive experiences our competition was.''

In addition, he says, the women have a huge pool of qualified players to select from, both at the youth level and in college. Currently, 40 percent of all youth players in America are female, and that percentage appears to be growing. Because of gender equity issues and Title IX legislation, more and more colleges are adding women's soccer programs: Last year, 30 Division I teams were formed, Dorrance says, and this year another 30 to 40 will start.

But the strength of women's soccer in America is based primarily on the cultural acceptance of women athletes here, says Dorrance, who also coaches the women's team at the University of North Carolina: ``We don't have a negative stigma about women in athletics or girls in athletics in this country like so many countries do.''

``I had a younger sister who used to kick my rear end as an athlete when I was younger,'' Dorrance continues, ``so I was never brought up with the opinion that women couldn't be successful athletes.'' His mother was a better athlete than his father, too, he says.

As a result, Dorrance's coaching style is not to condescend to women, the way he sees so many coaches do. ``Basically, you challenge them the way you would any great athlete,'' he says. ``The challenge in coaching women is to get them to accept the fact that it's OK to win; it's OK to be the best; it's OK to go after people. Because, for some reason in our culture, women are trained to be noncompetitive.''

(Dorrance, one of the sport's most successful coaches, said July 29 that he will step down as coach of the national team. His reasoning: the national team needs ``a new energy.'' Assistant coach Tony DiCicco will replace him after the world-championship qualifying tournament in Montreal this weekend.)

Generally, Dorrance observes, the top powers in women's soccer are countries where women have more political clout, as in Scandinavia and the US. ``It all has to do with the cultural freedom of the women in those countries,'' he says.

``In South America and Southern Europe, and certainly in the Middle East and Africa, they consider soccer a male game ... because basically their nationalism is tied up in it,'' Dorrance says. ``And because of their chauvinistic attitude about sport, they don't feel that women can play [soccer] effectively.''

In the upcoming months, women's soccer has the potential to put itself on a whole new level, Dorrance says. Last year, the International Olympic Committee made women's soccer a medal sport in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. That may just be the showcase women's soccer needs to capture the attention of more spectators at home and abroad.

``For the American people, the Olympics are everything,'' Dorrance says, and ``a world championship is nothing. If women's soccer can win them [Americans] another gold medal, all of a sudden we're supported and cherished by an expanding public.''

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