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Randy Harvey

Shining Under a Shared Spotlight

October 05, 2003|Randy Harvey

PORTLAND, Ore. — Mia Hamm has her own building at Nike's headquarters, but what she didn't have Friday on the Ronaldo Field in Beaverton was company. She sat alone while most of her teammates on the U.S. women's soccer team were doing interviews.

"One game without a goal and nobody wants to talk to you," Julie Foudy told Hamm, poking fun at the most famous women's soccer player in the world.

There was a time when media availability for the U.S. women meant Mia availability. During the 1999 World Cup, reporters often crowded around her while ignoring her teammates.

Hamm prefers it the way it was Friday.

One reason is that she has an almost Garboesque aversion to attention. Another, she has said, is that her teammates should be publicized. U.S. women's soccer cannot live on Hamm alone.

She has gotten her wish in this World Cup. Abby Wambach, Shannon Boxx and Catherine Reddick, new starters for the U.S. team, have spent almost as much time in front of the microphones and tape recorders as Hamm.

As a result, the sport is on even firmer ground than it was in 1999, when the U.S. team attracted more than 50,000 fans for each of its six games, including 90,125 for the victory over China in the final at the Rose Bowl.

Attendance figures this year have not been nearly as high. But there are mitigating circumstances. Organizers had a mere 4 1/2 months to promote the tournament after it was moved from China because of the SARS epidemic. Also, they couldn't have the same summer dates they had four years ago, when children weren't in school and the sports landscape was less crowded.

Considering that, the numbers have been impressive. The U.S. team has drawn from 22,000 to 35,000 for each of its four games. The crowd in Foxboro, Mass., for the quarterfinal victory over Norway was 25,103, not at all bad on a Wednesday night when the Boston Red Sox were opening in the baseball playoffs.

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Now the best thing the U.S. team can do for women's soccer in the semifinals at PGE Park today against Germany is to lose.

The sputtering sound you just heard was Tim Leiweke spitting out his morning coffee.

Of course, it would be much better for Leiweke, who oversees the Home Depot Center for Philip Anschutz, if the U.S. team were in the final Sunday at the soccer stadium in Carson than in the third-place game the day before.

It also would be better for this particular World Cup if the U.S. team were in the final in front of 27,500 enthusiastic fans and the national television audience provided by ABC. In contrast, the third-place game would have a crowd no doubt deflated numerically and emotionally and is going to be televised by ESPN2.

But, looking beyond next weekend, it's better for the long-term future of women's soccer if teams other than the United States are in the championship game.

Players such as Germany's Maren Meinert and Birgit Prinz and Sweden's Hanna Ljungberg and Canada's Charmaine Hooper and Sharlota Nonen could appear on the sport's ultimate stage. Just as we've come to recognize there are players in the United States other than Mia Hamm, we are learning during this World Cup that there are players other than Americans.

The very few fans who followed the WUSA knew that already. The league was the world's best because it had all of the best U.S. players and many of the best international players. The most valuable players in two of the three years the league existed were Europeans, France's Marinette Pichon of the Philadelphia Charge in 2002 and Meinert of the Boston Breakers in 2003.

If the WUSA is resurrected, and it appears as if it might be in some form, league officials must do a better job of promoting foreign players. There aren't enough Mias and Brandis and Julies and Abbys to go around.

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If the WUSA were revived, players probably would have to take a cut in pay for the second consecutive year. Some foreign players might not return for less than the $45,000 to $60,000 they reportedly earned last season.

Prinz, who played for Carolina, said that would hinder her development as well as that of her teammates who played in the league. Germany had the United States down twice before falling, 3-2, in the quarterfinals four years ago. Prinz said the Germans lost because they didn't believe they could win. They do now, she said, crediting the WUSA.

"We were intimidated by the Americans," she said. "But playing against them in the WUSA helped us to know they are not more physical than we are, that they are not better."

U.S. Coach April Heinrichs said recently that if she could choose three players from the rest of the world for her team, Prinz would be one. She is the tournament's leading scorer with six goals. Meinert is a brilliant playmaker.

What are the chances of Germany upsetting the United States?

So good that it wouldn't be considered much of an upset.

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Randy Harvey can be reached at randy.harvey@latimes.com.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

U.S. vs. Germany

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