August 20, 2013

I left my wife and kids for the US women's national team #the99ers #NineforIX

I just finished watching the awesome documentary Nine for IX: the 99ers. While I adore our current national team and totally support our resident Golden Bear, that 1999 team was something truly special.

In 1995, still flush from the thrill of attending men's World Cup games at Stanford Stadium, I caught every moment I could of the US women's national team on TV as they made a great showing and finished in third place in the second ever women's World Cup. I was 28, a new homeowner, married five years, and only just beginning to think about having kids.

I fell so in love with the women's game, and with the US team in particular (not a fan of Norway's super physical style but loved the flow, precision, vision, teamwork, and heart of the US squad) that I began hoping our first child would be a girl so I could teach her soccer and somehow take part in this movement I felt growing all around us. (A year later, our first son was born, and even though he doesn't like to play soccer, I still love him.)

Fast forward four years to 1999, when the US women's team was charging into the World Cup with incredible talent and experience. The team even featured a local girl, Tiffany Roberts. As the final approached, a friend I played pickup with suggested heading to the finals in Pasadena.

So I left my three-year-old and three-month-old with my wife and jumped in the car with my buddy and another guy. We drove all night, arrived a few hours before the third place game, and slept in the car in the parking lot for a couple hours before the early game.

The atmosphere was fantastic. Kids everywhere, especially teen and preteen girls with their parents. Unlike the rough reputation of men's championships overseas, this was exactly what sport should be. I don't remember much of the game itself. What I remember best is the walk into the stadium and the feeling that this was a pivotal moment in the growth of soccer in the US. (A year later I watched Eric Wynalda take over the inaugural MLS game with a beautiful goal that announced soccer's permanence in the US. But I don't think that goal would have meant as much without the magic of this women's team in 1999 and the dramatic world cup win over very, very good competition.)

More than a decade later, I found myself sitting across a dinner table from two of the members of that team, Julie Foudy and Mia Hamm. And, for the first time in my life I was star-struck. I'd met some pretty famous people before, had given presentations to some powerful people. I tend not to be that awed by fame. But this was different.

These women didn't have million dollar contracts. They didn't play full time in a professional league. They didn't have the infrastructure, financial support, or TV coverage of other athletes. Those weren't their reasons for playing and winning. What they accomplished was not just win a few games, but inspire an entire generation of kids, who now are growing up and having kids of their own. Without downplaying the importance of the men's team and the efforts of MLS, I think it was the 1999 women's team that was the spark that kindled the fire of soccer passion in the US.

If you haven't watched the documentary, try to check it out. Maybe it means more to those of us who were electrified by the team at the time, or maybe its effects are universal. Either way, I think it's a great inside look at the team and their reflections today.

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