The Goal That Has Burned Within

By Ann Killion San Francisco Chronicle.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia

This is the day the American women have been focused on for four years. The goal that has burned within them for most of their lifetimes.

Back in 1999, when all but one of the current team were just schoolgirls watching idols, who knew there wouldn't be another trophy raised in the 16 long years since?

Sunday, the U.S. national team takes the artificial turf at B.C. Place to try, once again, to win the World Cup.

And to try to change the world. Once again.

It's a double burden these women carry. The same one embedded in the team for its entire existence. Not only are the players expected to win a high-pressure game, but also to validate themselves and their very existence in the process.

At a news conference Friday, the American women answered questions about defense and tactics and their opponent, Japan. But they were also were asked about sexism in their sport, about trying to grow the game, about what kind of impact they thought a World Cup victory would have on women's sports.

Close your eyes, listen to the questions, and you could be back in 1999.

Different times

Well, that's not completely true.

"If we win I'll kiss every one of you on the lips," Abby Wambach said. "But don't tell my wife that."

See? The world can change, sometimes more rapidly than we expect. But it hasn't changed as much for women's soccer as we would have thought back in 1999, when the paradigm for women's sports appeared to shift.

Yet, here we are. The television ratings are through the roof, again. Millions of little girls are running around in Rapinoe and Morgan jerseys. Most of the host cities are packed with fans. The players have proved to be marketable commodities. The level of play is better than ever, the sport stronger around the world.

Despite that, every four years the women's game is treated as a surprise. A novelty. A tender shoot that could easily be stomped.

Defensive backbone This American team is not tender. Not at all. These players are tough and determined, anchored by a ferocious defense that has allowed one goal in the entire tournament and is driven by a hunger that no other iteration of the U.S. team has had.

July 17, 2011: A loss in the World Cup to Japan on penalty kicks.

"That fuels our fire," Wambach said. "That motivates us. It's always there. That's what happens in heartbreak."

This is an immensely appealing team, one that has once again captured the imagination of the public, based on the record television ratings. (In fairness, all the knockout games have drawn good ratings, even without the pull of the U.S. team.)

It takes all kinds The national team is a combination of proud legends and enthusiastic newcomers. Icons like Wambach and Christie Rampone are willingly taking a seat on the bench and cheering on their team. Coach Jill Ellis paid her dues through the system, and she has proven herself a strong and adaptable leader. The American defense is rabid, anchored by previous unknowns like Santa Clara's Julie Johnston, the team's smallest player Meghan Klingenberg and oft-overlooked Becky Sauerbrunn. And of course, the ever controversial and click-worthy Hope Solo, still the best goalkeeper on the globe.

The team has worthy starters and incredible depth. When the coaches write out the starting lineup, they don't list the nonstarters as substitutes, they list them under the heading "game-changers." Kelley O'Hara showed how true that was in the semifinal against Germany with a late goal off the bench, which buried the world's No. 1 team.

Painful 2011 loss And for almost all of the U.S. players, that loss to Japan fuels them.

Carli Lloyd, so far the player of the tournament with two key penalty kicks, is motivated by the memory of missing a PK in the shootout four years ago.

"I learned a big lesson there," she said.

But the on-field story lines for this team are intertwined with issues of sexism. Of how far the game still has to go.

There's the well-known story of the artificial turf, how FIFA refused to find a way for this tournament to be played on grass despite offers by lawn companies to provide fields. Wambach called it "a slap in the face." There's the issue of FIFA putting teams in the same hotels, creating awkward and unnecessary situations. Neither would be tolerated in the men's game.

Paid a pittance And then there's the prize money. While no one is suggesting the women deserve the reported $576 million in total prize money awarded during the 2014 men's World Cup, a little balance would be useful. The total prize money for the women's World Cup is $15 million, or about the same amount that a member of the FIFA executive committee might find in a bribe bag, handed over by the solicitous prince of a country with big aspirations. FIFA reportedly spent twice that amount on a self-produced, self-congratulatory documentary. The winning women's team will take home $2 million, or $6 million less than a men's team that didn't make it out of the knockout stage.

"I think in the last four or five years it's changing more," said optimistic Megan Rapinoe, "other than still doing crazy things like putting our World Cup on turf.

"The people with the money have to realize there is money to be made in our game. I think they're seeing that now." Progress is slow

Those are the same kind of hopes voiced by her predecessors, in 2003 and 2007 and 2011.

Maybe progress will occur with FIFA under pressure, being investigated by the FBI and others. Maybe change is afoot.

Maybe in four years the coach of a team in the final won't be asked on the eve of the game about inequities.

"I think people, FIFA included," Ellis said, "can't help but notice how popular this sport is."

Sunday, the American women will take the field, and prove it once again.

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