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U.S. Women's Soccer Team Wins Fans' Loyalty, If Not World Cup

More than 25,000 people, many wearing red, white and blue, turn out to watch the third-place match against Canada.

October 12, 2003|Stephanie Chavez | Times Staff Writer

Justin Allen, of San Diego, sipped a large beer and for the first time watched women play soccer Saturday -- World Cup soccer, that is. "I'm surprised by the competitiveness," he said.

But that's just what prompted Katie Byrne to fly in from Michigan, a die-hard fan attending her second Women's World Cup tournament.

And to Ron Kooy, of Bellflower, it didn't matter that his team was playing for third place or that sponsorship support for his favorite sport was so weak that one of the professional leagues has announced its dissolution.

It didn't matter, he said, because "a World Cup is a World Cup is a World Cup."

On Saturday, Kooy and his two children -- fresh off the soccer fields themselves and still in uniform -- watched in rapt attention as the United States defeated Canada 3-1 to take third place in the 2003 Women's World Cup at the Home Depot Center in Carson.

"Look, these women are the best in the nation. They are role models for my kids," he said. "We wouldn't miss this game for the world."

Throngs of girls, many dressed in their own soccer team uniforms, sat in clusters to cheer. Fans came wearing U.S. flags like capes. They painted their faces, bellies and arms red, white and blue. A middle-aged woman painted a temporary tattoo of a soccer ball on her neck. And when the team scored, fans stomped their feet, creating a thunderous rumble.

And for many of the 25,253 people who crowded into the stadium, this was a game that was as much a part of the history of the U.S. women's team as their memorable World Cup victory at the Rose Bowl in 1999.

It's a team, fans were quick to point out Saturday, that has lost only two out of 23 World Cup tournament games dating back to their first women's championship in China in 1991. They won the gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The team roster includes players who are household names: Mia Hamm, Joy Fawcett, Tiffeny Milbrett, Kristine Lilly. And even though it's a 4-year-old snapshot, fans were still talking Saturday about how Brandi Chastain ripped off her jersey after scoring the winning goal at the Rose Bowl.

"Who could ever forget that?" said Byrne, 28. She was at the Rose Bowl in 1999 and came back for more this year even though "third place is hard when there is such great talent."

But the fans seemed to be a forgiving bunch, especially on game day. "We can't expect them to win all the time," said Beth Petersen, 29, who drove with her family from Santa Maria. "Unfortunately, the game they lost was the semifinal," referring to last Sunday's loss to Germany.

"We got over that last week," said Steve Long, 45, of Tustin. "As soon as they lost we went out to buy the tickets for this game.... We've seen them eight to 10 times."

Long, who brought his soccer-playing children, Alana, 12, and Christopher, 9, explained that they were watching what could be among the last professional games played by some of the older members, who are in their 30s, including Hamm.

"I told the kids that this is a charter group, the first of its kind," Long said.

Many in the crowd said the game was bittersweet, coming weeks after the Women's United Soccer Assn. -- one of two professional leagues for women in the country -- announced that it halted play because of the lack of sponsorships.

Lauren Molinaro, 24, of Manchester, Conn., was one of many fans who pinned a sign to her shirt reading "SAVE WASU," the league's acronym. In 2001, Molinaro said she was drafted to play for the league's San Jose team, but broke her leg, ending her soccer career. "But so many of my friends are on teams. It's so sad," she said. "I just want soccer to take off. I have to keep positive that the league will come back."

The way Tim Synold sees it, he's raising the next generation of soccer fans, girls that could keep one eye on the pro game while rehashing their own big win of the day.

"Our love of soccer isn't affected by the failure of the league," said Synold, 40, of Monrovia, whose daughter and her teammate were feeling jazzed over their own team victory Saturday morning.

"Yeah, the field was muddy and Santa Anita was a tough team. But we were determined to beat them," said Miranda Wood, 9, a player with the Crown City United club team, recounting the key play. "We passed the ball to Torrey. She shot it with her left foot right into the net."

Just then the U.S. team scored their first goal of the game.

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