The U.S. women's soccer team was already down a goal early in its World Cup match last Thursday when two U.S. defenders collided in front of their net. A Nigerian opponent got the ball, drew goalie Briana Scurry out of the net, and passed wide to a teammate for an open shot. Where I was sitting, high behind the goal in the north end-zone seats at Soldier Field, I thought the Nigerian had scored, but she'd actually pushed the ball into the side of the net. Still, the U.S. team, playing before the largest crowd ever to see a soccer match in Chicago--65,080, more than for any of the games in the 1994 men's World Cup tournament here--looked awful. They appeared headed for a stunning upset in what was supposed to be the home-country glory tour for the World Cup favorites.
How would they respond to things not breaking their way? Beginning with solid, fundamental play and a ball-control offense that mixed long passes down the wings with precise give-and-go plays in the middle, they put together the most sustained and exciting sequence of soccer I have ever seen. Star Mia Hamm, whose every free kick set off a flurry of flashbulbs like a Michael Jordan free throw, kicked one in from the left side that was ruled a deflection off a Nigerian defender, tying the score. Then she scored again on a goal that was fully earned. After the U.S. team had run several plays down the middle, Hamm took a long pass on the right wing. She got the ball wide of the defense and, one-on-one with the Nigerian goalie, smashed the ball high into the right-hand corner, an unstoppable shot, for her record 111th goal in international competition. She celebrated by sliding on her knees, arms flung upward, into the welcoming U.S. bench. Moments later Tiffeny Milbrett scored on a high-pressure flurry in front of the Nigerian net. Michelle Akers, the senior player on the team at age 33, celebrated in childlike fashion by diving face first into the sod right at the feet of Brandi Chastain, who looked down at her as if to say, "Why not?" and then did a theatrical little flop of her own. That made it 3-1 U.S., and in the sedate, soporific world of soccer, where one or two goals are usually enough to win a game, it was the equivalent of a fireworks display. Milbrett herself would later call this "the most exciting game we've ever played."
So there was sporting substance in addition to pomp and pageantry at the Women's World Cup, although it seemed to be lost on most of the newspaper columnists in town. To be sure, the pageantry was distracting, and perhaps even significant in its own right. Walking around downtown switching trains on my way to the game, I saw an eight- or nine-year-old girl with a red-white-and-blue beard painted on her face and a "U.S.A. # 9" painted on her T-shirt (the number of Hamm's jersey). She and her little sister both had tiny U.S. flags poking out of their hair all around their heads as they walked with their parents toward the game. Painted faces and various Hamm mementos were all the rage inside Soldier Field as well, not only for the U.S. fans but for the Nigerians too.
The Nigerian fans--and there were many more than anyone would have expected--were outfitted in green and white, with green-and-white plastic leis and green-and-white tambourines. The thickest pocket of Nigerian fans wound up seated just a section to my right in the end-zone seats, and they were the most cheery, most loyal, and certainly the most musical bunch of sports fans I believe I've ever seen. They started thumping away on drums and various other percussion instruments before the game began, with one persistent drumbeat augmented by shifting polyrhythms and a couple trumpets, and they never let up, not even when the game was all but over. (They reminded me of the time I saw King Sunny Ade in a parking lot outside Soldier Field at ChicagoFest on what must have been the hottest day of 1983.) Not everyone shared my fondness for them, however, especially after the Nigerians scored first. "When are they going to cut that racket out?" asked one person. But by halftime, with the game well in hand for the U.S. team and its fans, people were bouncing in the aisles and in their seats anywhere near the Nigerian section. The Nigerians also had a couple banners they waved throughout the game, including one that read, "We eat Hamm sandwiches." I particularly liked the more political sentiment of "Soccer + Democracy = Nigeria."
There's no denying the sheer impact of the U.S. women's soccer team drawing 65,000 fans to a game (this on a night the White Sox barely drew 13,000 just down Lake Shore Drive and inland at the new Comiskey Park). It was a completely different crowd from the relatively small cadre of several thousand who attended the U.S. women's "friendly" exhibition match at Soldier Field last summer. The players were greeted with huge cheers, both for the pregame practice session and when they marched on field for the game proper. To be sure, many of the fans were girls, young women, and soccer moms--the seats just to my left and in the next row down were occupied by a couple sisters and their daughters, and during halftime the moms discussed how they were going to try to get Springsteen tickets that weekend--but it wasn't exclusively the minivan set other columnists have described. Two women sitting behind me were serious soccer fans--and one was a serious singer, doing a proud and marvelous rendition of the national anthem before turning to her friend and saying, "Let's get some runs!"--and there were a couple guys who were soccer aficionados just down the aisle to the left; they were full of scouting reports about the first game of the World Cup doubleheader, won by Brazil 2-0 over Italy.
So with all this fervor around them perhaps it was natural that the U.S. players came out looking so shaky. The first goal came in the second minute, and it was embarrassing. The Nigerians were ferocious on the attack to start, and at one point the U.S. defenders made the fundamental mistake of kicking the ball into the center in front of their net instead of dumping to the side. A number of players rushed to the ball, which rolled free to the side to Nkiru Okosieme, who lofted a little chip shot over the head of Scurry into the net. U.S. fans were dumbstruck, and when the Nigerians almost scored again after that collision between U.S. defenders they were genuinely worried.
The U.S. players had admitted they'd been a little nervous in the World Cup opener played the previous Saturday in front of almost 80,000 fans in Philadelphia. Yet they avoided any defensive breakdowns in that game against Denmark, and their stars prevailed. Hamm scored the first goal of that game on a beautiful play, trapping a long pass down the right wing with her right foot, dribbling to her left around a defender and then nailing a nasty hooking left-footed kick into the high right corner. Akers and Julie Foudy, who did commentary on U.S. TV during last year's men's World Cup in France, also scored, meaning the three most familiar faces on the team had scored all the goals in a 3-0 victory. Now nerves apparently had struck again, and they were trailing and being outplayed.
Yet it was instructive and quite convincing how they turned the momentum. The Nigerian forwards seemed a bit quicker than the U.S. defenders, especially the fleet little Rita Nwadike, but the U.S. defense grew adept at pushing them wide and keeping the Nigerian attack diffuse. Meanwhile, the U.S. team played more crisply with every minute, varying its attacks up the middle and up the sides. The Nigerian players are one-on-one specialists, but when they got past one U.S. player another was dropping back to pick them up. The U.S. team would typically work the ball to one player on the Nigerian side of the field and then three or four teammates would burst into intricate patterns, with the ball handler passing into the area of weakest defense. It was awesomely and ruthlessly efficient, like watching a pod of killer whales round up and feast on a school of fish.
After the three-goal U.S. flurry, the teams played back and forth--the Nigerian percussion band urging its team on as the concrete end-zone section throbbed with energy--until the U.S. put the game away with another three-goal explosion before halftime. Kristine Lilly came charging straight down the middle of the field on a free kick from Hamm on the left wing, converged with the ball, and booted it in to make the score 4-1. In another textbook play, a crossing pass from the right wing was headed in by Akers positioned at the left post to make it 5-1. Then came the coup de grace, a double header from Chastain left of the goal to Cindy Parlow dead center who butted it in with authority. It was the equivalent of an LA Lakers showtime, and at 6-1 at the half the game was all but over.
The second half was really just a lovefest, as the U.S. played a precise ball-control game without going into a stall. As the sun set, a hazy, roseate glow settled over the high-rise to the south. Down under the stands, the passageways were packed and there were long lines for everything. "They totally underestimated this," said one of the soccer moms. "Every U.S. soccer shirt is gone. And the food line is worse than any Bear game I've ever been at." Yet a few minutes later she was settled in with her youngest daughter, pointing out the rising half-moon. Hamm left the game early to a huge ovation after getting knocked around a bit by the Nigerians. Akers didn't play at all in the second half, having stayed in the locker room at intermission for some extra treatment on a sore leg. When she finally emerged and walked the edge of the field to the U.S. bench with a slight limp, fans cheered her at every section all the way around.
Late in the game the U.S. added one last pretty goal when Parlow, coming down the right wing, sent a centering pass to Milbrett charging down the middle, who calmly deflected it past the Nigerian goalie. That made the final score 7-1. As the game ended and the U.S. players circled the field, thanking the fans and accepting thanks in return, what came across was the togetherness of the team, the way it plays as a rare and very special unit. There are some great players on the U.S. squad, Hamm foremost among them. Trotting up and down the field, conserving energy, knowing where the ball and her teammates are, and playing in spectacular bursts, she has the effortless grace of a great hockey player like Wayne Gretzky or Gordie Howe. There's something of that to Lilly as well, a lithe offensive player deadly as a knife. Yet the other U.S. stars, such as the rock-solid Akers and the stocky Milbrett, who has the nonstop energy of a terrier, are limited players who simply play well together. This is, in many ways, a dream team to rival the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team--and perhaps it even exceeds that squad in unity. A postgame fireworks display began as we walked back to the el stop at Roosevelt, and I looked back over my shoulder at the skyrockets bursting over the Field Museum--an image out of a postcard--thinking that the fireworks in the sky couldn't rival those that had taken place on the field. The U.S. women make soccer seem explosive, and who would have thought that possible?