Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Respect Remains A World Away For U.S. Women


Published: September 12, 2007

The current members of the American women’s soccer team seem preoccupied with receiving the same attention their hallowed ancestors did eight years ago.

A good way to start would be learning to survive while short a player. That is how the great teams respond. To date, there is no evidence the new breed has the same resourcefulness displayed by the Fawcetts and Foudys and, oh yes, the Chastains of yesteryear.

The current Yanks did fight back yesterday for a 2-2 draw with a worthy North Korean team in the first match of the Women’s World Cup in Chengdu, China — an event sure to make insomniacs out of soccer die-hards, what with the host nation being 12 hours ahead of New York and 15 ahead of California.

Just to disorient sports fans’ internal time clocks even more, the United States plays Tonga today in the Rugby World Cup in France while all over the continent most nations are playing qualifying matches for the Euro 2008 soccer tournament. And to further complicate things, the great cycling dynasty, now known as the Discovery Channel, is making its last stand before disbanding, racing around that historic and scenic cycling hub of Missouri.

Meanwhile, somebody told me the American football season has begun, but I haven’t had time to investigate, what with the big event in China, available thanks to good old ESPN. It was raining as hard in Chengdu as it was in New York yesterday, as I woke up at the ridiculous hour of 5 a.m. to watch the Americans in their bid for respect.

Recognition seems to be a preoccupation this year. While Kristine Lilly, the last of the great grannies, is as serene as ever, some of the younger players seem caught up in craving the publicity that Mia Hamm got — and, by the way, deserved. The soccer federation doesn’t help by pushing a needy team slogan of “The Greatest Team You’ve Never Heard Of.”

It’s hard to know whether this is a case of puffery imitating life or life imitating puffery, but the ESPN broadcast included a totally inappropriate commercial from Nike showing a creepy publicist wearing a Chastain-style sports bra, advising the players to focus on glitz. A few of the younger guns shoot him a hard look, and one of them boots a shot directly to some unspecified but vulnerable sector of the publicist’s anatomy. It should only be that easy.

In the actual game, which the ubiquitous sponsor could not control, the results were somewhat the opposite. Abby Wambach, the warrior striker, went off the field for treatment of a scalp wound, and the 10 remaining players failed to regroup, yielding two quick goals.

I once saw my favorite defender, Franco Baresi, wobble around with a head wound during an A.C. Milan match while a teammate, the smooth Paolo Maldini, seamlessly played both defensive sectors until Franco could see and walk again. That poise is not necessarily a guy thing. Carla Overbeck and Michelle Akers knew how to run the clock, but this team, coached by Greg Ryan, has not yet mastered those fine points.

It better rev up the learning curve because the United States plays Sweden at the same hideous time Friday. Ryan may even think about using Briana Scurry instead of Hope Solo, who allowed one shot to squish off her fingers for the first goal.

Halfway between Chengdu and New York, the United States is emphatically not a favorite in the Rugby World Cup. The Eagles, who have won only two matches, both against Japan, in World Cup competition, lost to the defending champion, England, 28-10, in the opener. Paul Emerick, one of the few American professionals, is suspended for three matches for flipping an English opponent into the air. That match will be available at the somewhat more civil hour of 8 a.m. via the dish and satellite version of Setanta Sports, perhaps in the occasional pub or restaurant that caters to international fans.

Then there are the Euro qualifiers featuring the habitual perils of Italy and England, two grand old soccer nations that do not know how to do anything easily. Italy plays Ukraine in Kiev today; England is host to Russia at Wembley. I’m going to watch the England match with an Arsenal fan and a Chelsea fan who will unite temporarily for the common cause.

Finally, there is the six-day jaunt around Missouri, with the Discovery Channel heading for oblivion after Sunday’s final stage. Having won the Tour de France seven times with Lance Armstrong and once this year with Alberto Contador, and with no Discovery rider ever suspended for testing positive during a race, the team is going out of business because potential sponsors were put off by the reek of scandal from the Tour.

The American soccer players do not have to worry that their team will go out of business, the way Discovery is doing. The women still have time to measure up against their predecessors. The first step would be to lose that disrespectful Nike commercial.



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