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Breakthrough moment for women’s soccer? Nah – they “broke through” a long time ago

Aug 11, 2012, 2:30 PM EDT

Abby Wambach of the U.S. kisses her gold medal after winning the women's soccer final against Japan during the victory ceremony at Wembley Stadium during the London 2012 Olympic Games

Any long, tall and refreshing drink of women’s soccer success in the United States gets chased with a splash of cliché queries. Two questions are as inevitable as a goal kick after a well-wide shot:

  • What will this volley of success do for women’s soccer here?
  • Will it facilitate the development of a women’s professional league here?

On the first issue, I’ll get to the bottom line fast:

It won’t do much. And I mean that in a very positive way for women’s soccer.

I feel strongly about this: We are past the point where these glorious moments for U.S. women’s soccer are true game-changers. They are moments to be celebrated, of course. But they aren’t moments that will significantly elevate the profile of women’s soccer here. They’ll nudge it forward a little more, but we are past the time of momentous breakthroughs – and that’s all a testament to how far the game has come.

Think of it like this: once you’ve tasted ice cream, you know you love ice cream! You might renew your vows, re-asserting your adoration of Chunky Monkey or whatever, but you can only have that moment once.

By definition, we can only “break through” so many times. The original breakthrough domestic women’s soccer moment, of course, was The Girls of Summer swim through the Women’s World Cup in 1999. Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Michelle Akers, Carla Overbeck and the rest ensconced themselves splendidly as the nation’s sporting darlings. They hit all the right notes in the greater sports continuum, raising the profile of soccer and women’s athletics all at once.

It helped, of course, that the 1999 WWC was here, arranging the stage just so for maximum, heroic exposure.

From there, subsequent tournament success created moments to remember, whether it was about claiming Olympic gold or those stirring comebacks along the way in the Women’s World Cup chase. (Abby Wambach at the far post in the dying seconds against Brazil? Yeah, I’ve YouTubed that one a few times since, getting all goose bumpy every time at Ian Darke’s amazing call.)

So each new launch of summer soccer awareness surely moved the sport forward. Olympic gold in Beijing? Long, slow applause for you ladies! Well done.

Big, brave stab at glory in Germany at last year’s Women’s World Cup, undone only by a team of destiny from Japan? We held the U.S. players in highest regard, feting and lauding them no less for falling one match short.

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This time around, Pia Sundhage’s ladies were perfect in a 6-0-0 dash for gold medal glory in and around London. Three golds in a row? Are you kidding me? Truly a historic achievement.

But did those moments change the game? Not much. They’ve arrived already. Again, how many grand entrances can you make?

Everyone does realize that a 12-year-old who watched in wide-eyed wonder in 1999 is now 25 years old, with a career and possibly kids of their own, right? We know what women’s soccer is in our land – and it is grand!

What 2012 gold does mean: This new generation of talent has climbed steadily from the shadow of the 99ers (Hamm, Chastain, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Brianna Scurry, etc.) Alex Morgan will be the new Mia Hamm. She’s bound for Hall of Fame levels of marketing exposure.

Hope Solo’s athletic, skillful moments will allow her to dodge most public scrutiny from her Mean Girls moment, those unnecessary and distracting Twitter rants.

Abby Wambach’s legend grows taller and Megan Rapinoe begins to take her place among the giants of U.S. women’s soccer. Carli Lloyd’s drive and Tobin Heath’s technical grace isn’t lost on anyone paying attention.

We should talk about these championships on their own merit, for the accomplishment at team and individual level. What does it mean for women’s soccer?

Let me answer a question with a question: What will a gold medal in men’s basketball mean for men’s basketball in this country?

I doubt anybody is asking that, because it’s a goofy and irrelevant question. Well, same deal.

Soccer in the United States, and women’s soccer in particular, is past that.

(As for what the latest events mean for the potential development of a women’s pro league, we’ll visit about that one tomorrow.)

  1. footballer4ever - Aug 11, 2012 at 4:48 PM

    It raises the profile of the sport in the USA and more kids will look up to, dream and play to become those future footballers who get to play in a national team.

  2. udub - Aug 11, 2012 at 5:59 PM

    Say it’s insensitive, say it’s not ‘PC’ but women’s soccer is never going to be more than it is. The USWNT is evident of that. How much more success can they have and people still don’t care except for 90 minutes while they go out and win a World Cup or gold medal? People defending women’s soccer, because they truly care or pretend to care so they can feel better about themselves, need to stop trying to shove it down the casual fans throat or they’ll do more harm than good. The more ‘this is it, women’s soccer has finally arrived!’ nonsense they try to promote the less I, and a lot of others will care because I just want to enjoy women’s soccer here and there. 99.999% of the people who watch matches like US vs Japan for a gold medal are not going to suddenly just go, ‘Damn, you know what I want to do now? Watch a regular season San Francisco vs Miami match in America’s newest professional league. I know this time it’s not going to fail miserably and fold soon! Yeah!!’

  3. footballer4ever - Aug 11, 2012 at 7:41 PM

    @ udub- if it works or not, i am sure you as the “casual” fan will have nothing to do with its failure or success. One thing is for sure, they deserve to have their own league and have the parents, kids and any other fans make that “decision” on the stands.

    You are neither insensitive or “PC”, you are just a negative person by nature. If the WNBA is still around with whatever “success” they have, why can’t women have their own league? Noone is saying the next women’s league will be better than any other sport.

    In the end, when it comes to soccer, some people can’t stand the fact the sport is growing one way or another.

  4. greej1938l - Aug 11, 2012 at 8:46 PM

    Broke through a long time ago….LOL

  5. acieu - Aug 12, 2012 at 7:38 AM

    All it takes is money. Attract investors but to rail about what someone deserves is crazy. Just find 8 billionaires who dont care about losing money and form the league.

  6. joeyt360 - Aug 12, 2012 at 4:52 PM

    I don’t know about only one ‘breakthrough’, I think there can be one breakthrough per ‘level’ of presence. I think in terms of the international game, women’s soccer in 2011-2012 reached a higher level than it was at in 1999. The two evolutionary differences I saw:

    1) The US was hosting in 1999, which was a big boost (the same thing happened in the men’s game, where 1994 got boosted ratings because we were hosting it; it planted a seed that grew steadily, but I don’t think any WC actually out-rated 1994 until 2010). A lot of what fed the late round ratings was word spreading about the surprising attendance in the tournament. (Shouldn’t have been that surprising, women’s soccer drew very well in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996).

    2) It was treated in 1999 as if its purpose was just to prove some sociological point. 2011 came much closer to being presented as an orthodox sporting event. And where the US had been prohibitive favorites in 1999, in 2011 a lot of people were putting us at even-money to even less to be there on the final day.

    And of course, this time there was another major tournament a year later. . . and it’s significant that basically no one said “women’s soccer. . . again? Didn’t we just do that?”

    How that translates into a league is another matter. Getting people interested week-after-week in a team that only represents their town, in a league that might fold yet again, is, as udub pointed out, an awfully big hill to climb.

    I will say though, that the only real certainty about predicting the future is that, eventually, one some issue that was assumed to be permanent, the people who say “the future must be like the past and the present” are going to be wrong. Attitudes are ‘permanent’. . . until they’re not.

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