I dream of Brandi

Updated: July 11, 2011, 1:51 PM ET
By David Hirshey | Special to

Women's World Cup finalHector Mata/Getty ImagesAs the Women's World Cup kicks off, Team USA has only one remaining member (Christie Rampone) of the legendary 1999 championship team, seen here celebrating at the Rose Bowl. But the spirit of Mia Hamm's ponytailed warriors lives on.

The only time I've been forced to enter a restaurant through the kitchen was in the summer of 1999, when I accompanied Brandi Chastain to dinner in New York City. Word had leaked that Chastain -- fresh off winning the Women's World Cup and doing for sports bras what Ronaldo does for spray tans -- was dining at a trendy boîte in SoHo. A wall of paparazzi and squealing teenage girls had gathered outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of the woman who scored the winning penalty kick against China and then memorably doffed her jersey in celebration. To avoid a mob scene, Chastain was ushered in through the back entrance -- to the delight of the kitchen staff, who put down their utensils and dishes and chanted "USA! USA!" as she signed aprons and menus on the way to her table.

Fast-forward to last week at the same restaurant, where I was talking to the bartender, a rabid EPL fan.

"What are you writing about now that the Premier League is on hiatus?" he asked.

"Well, the Women's World Cup kicks off in ten days …"

"Is the U.S. in it?" he asked, in what can sadly be considered an accurate barometer of how far women's soccer has fallen in the consciousness of American sports fans. How did we go from being a country that treated women soccer players like rock stars to a nation that is seemingly oblivious to the fact that the best 16 teams in the world will be battling in Germany for their sport's highest honor over the next three weeks?

Wake up, America, and smell the Gatorade.

Where's your sense of old-fashioned patriotism, your jingoistic fervor that 12 years ago sold out the Rose Bowl and drew more than 40 million television viewers from sea to shining sea? Have you misplaced your constitutional obligation to embrace the Big Event and make it into a red, white and blue vuvuzela-palooza? Don't you remember those joyous images of Bill Clinton bursting into the locker room after the U.S. women beat China and thanking the team "for the gift you have given the United States" and then having champagne dumped on his presidential head? Or what Jack Nicholson -- one of 90,000 delirious fans in Pasadena that day -- said when asked if he loved women's soccer? "No," Jack said, "but I love women."

Don't get me wrong. I understand that the tsunami of women's soccer fever that swept the nation in 1999 was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon and that the U.S. is no longer the juggernaut it was back then. I'm aware that the Americans finished third in the past two World Cups and were the last country to qualify for this one. I realize that the U.S.'s professional soccer league, WPS, is on life support, and that Mia Hamm is a mother of twin 4-year-old girls. (At least things are looking bright for our 2027 team!) I'm fully cognizant of all that and I'm still mystified by the level of indifference toward the current crop of ponytailed warriors.

Quick, name three players on your 2011 U.S. team -- not including Hope Solo, whom everyone knows from her very public benching in the 2008 Brazil semifinal that led to the dismissal of head coach Greg Ryan? And no points either for being able to identify human battering ram Abby Wambach, whose bruised and bloodied postgame face has been seen in just about every U.S national team highlight of the past decade. And don't even think about answering "Heather Mitts," who has been a staple of the sports gossip pages since she married Rams quarterback A.J. Feeley.

[+] EnlargeMia Hamm
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesBrandi Chastain (middle), Kristine Lilly and Mia Hamm enjoy a lighter moment after winning the third-place match against Canada at the 2003 World Cup.

Sadly, we've regressed to the stage that, unless you're related to one of the players or are a hardcore follower of the women's game in this country (and you both know who you are), the U.S. team might just as well be featured on milk cartons.

OK, I'll be the first to admit that after coming off eight breathless months of watching the pell-mell velocity and hurly-burly physicality of the EPL, women's soccer feels a little like a soothing cup of chamomile tea. It's no secret that the women don't possess the speed and strength of male players, but I will say two things in their favor. Their technique is often superior to the men's, and they tend to dive less. Plus, when was the last time you saw a bunch of snarling women surround a referee, John Terry/Didier Drogba-style, and try to bully him into a call?

And, most importantly, they have Marta, a player for the ages, man or woman. In the same way Lionel Messi quickens the viewer's pulse when he faces up to a defender -- or, as the case may be, three defenders -- so does the reigning five-time FIFA Women's World Player of the Year. And like Messi, the Brazilian rides the tackles en route to goal rather than flopping to ground at the slightest contact.

All of which makes you question why the women feel the need to sell more than their sport. Leave it to this year's enterprising hosts, the two-time defending champion Germans, to pose for Playboy and draw the kind of attention to the tournament that makes Sepp "Tighter Shorts" Blatter look like a beacon of gender enlightenment by comparison.

In the early 1990s, the U.S. players jokingly referred to themselves as "Booters with Hooters," and after they won the title, David Letterman jumped on the U.S. minivan and anointed them "Babe City." But the Americans chafed at the idea that their success was bound up with their Maxim-ready looks. They rightfully considered themselves elite athletes who competed with the same ferocity as the USMNT. And in doing so, they upended the stereotype of the caring and nurturing woman and the idea that it's somehow unladylike to win.

"We don't feel the least bit bad when we beat somebody," Julie Foudy once told me. Of course, Foudy, Chastain, Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Michelle Akers and the rest of those fabled Girls of Summer beat the crap out of their opponents for most of a decade. And no one loves a winner more than Madison Avenue, which turned Hamm into America's It Girl by beaming both her sumptuous talent and luxuriant mane into the households of suburban moms and their soccer-crazy tykes. Remember those Gatorade commercials in which Hamm's fellow Tar Heels legend Michael Jordan would challenge her to a game of one-on-one and yo-yo the ball in her face on the way to the hoop? And then Mia would blithely nutmeg His Airness and proclaim "Anything you can do, I can do better."

And Hamm was hardly the most outsized personality on a team that boasted "Loudy" Foudy and "Hollywood" Chastain. Is it any wonder that these wholesome, accessible, history-making heroines would own the hearts and feet of a generation and inspire headlines like "Girls Rule!" and "What A Kick!"?

Well, guess what? Those tweens with their gleaming braces and faces painted red, white and blue who hung around after those World Cup games in 1999 so the players could autograph their jerseys, posters and foreheads are all grown up now, and some of them are playing for the U.S.

Alex Morgan, for instance, was a 9-year-old tyro in Diamond Bar, Calif., when Chastain scored the most important goal in U.S. women's soccer history. In November, a month before she graduated from the University of California, Morgan scored an almost equally vital goal, a stoppage-time strike against Italy in the first of two playoff matches that prevented the unthinkable, the U.S. not qualifying for the World Cup.

Morgan is only one of several young and talented American players -- Amy Rodriguez, Lauren Cheney and Tobin Heath are all two or three years out of college -- who are the living embodiment of the 99ers' legacy. Hamm, Chastain, Foudy and the rest were their role models, the charismatic female pioneers who transformed the culture for them with their skill, grit and infectious love of the game.

The last link to that seismic moment in women's sports is 36-year-old Christie Rampone, the strong and quick co-captain who anchors the defense and is a mother of two children. In 1999, the world knew her as Christie Pearce, a shy and athletic 24-year-old sub who spent the entire coronary-inducing 120 scoreless minutes of the final rooted to the bench, but showed her world-class speed in racing the length of the field to engulf Chastain after her winning kick.

[+] EnlargeChristie Rampone
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe U.S.'s last link to the 1999 World Cup team is 36-year-old Christie Rampone, the strong and quick co-captain who anchors the defense.

I had discovered how fast Christie was a few months earlier when I accompanied the team to Brazil for a series of pre-World Cup friendlies. Our flight back to the States from Sao Paolo was delayed by an hour, which meant anyone trying to make the connection to Newark had 10 minutes to trek through the entire airport, a distance of at least a mile. Did I mention we were carrying our luggage from the ten-day trip? (OK, my bag had wheels.)

Anyway, I'll never forget what Christie said to me as we took off for the next terminal. "I'll set the pace" were the last words I heard before she disappeared up the escalator. When I finally stumbled aboard the plane, gasping for air and looking like I had just been to the Turkish baths, I nodded at Christie who was lounging in her seat, swaying to the music on her headphones. Needless to say, I didn't see a drop of sweat on her.

"I was worried you wouldn't make it," she said, trying to suppress a grin. I barely made it, and now 12 years later, I fear that women's soccer finds itself in the same situation. It needs an enormous injection of energy, goodwill and support over the next few weeks.

But one thing is certain: If the U.S. brings home the World Cup, I am walking through the front door of that restaurant.

David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."