CHICAGO — Sunday, July 7, 2019 will be unlike anything American soccer has ever seen.
It will be historic and dramatic. Consequential and memorable. No matter how it begins, nor how it ends, it will, in some form or fashion, change the sport forever.
Because for the first time, both of the United States’ senior national soccer teams will play for international championships on the same day. At 11 a.m. ET, the women seek to re-conquer the world. Only the Dutch stand between them and a fourth World Cup crown. Then, at 9:15 p.m., the men meet arch rival Mexico in the Gold Cup final with regional supremacy on the line.
The mere occasion warrants superlatives. The women’s game will fill bars and public squares and a swath of Lincoln Park in Chicago. In all likelihood, single-day American soccer viewership will soar to unprecedented heights. Single-day trophy-winning could as well.
In some senses, therefore, Sunday is the biggest day in U.S. soccer history.
For it to truly earn the title, though, its significance will have to endure.
And for that to happen, the women have to win.
The potential impact of another World Cup title
The 2019 U.S. women’s national team is already significant and has already made a lasting impact. Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan are already icons. They and their peers have already taken chunks out of gender-based pay gaps, and done wonders for women’s sports as a cross-industry institution.
None of that will change if the USWNT falls to the Netherlands on Sunday. But a world championship would fortify every fight the women engage in. It certainly wouldn’t hurt their case for better pay and treatment. It would make them superstars, and turn the court of public opinion irreversibly against anybody who dares question their superstardom.
In a narrower sense, Sunday’s World Cup final is significant because, uh, it’s a freakin’ World Cup final. It’s the pinnacle. It’s the honor for which 23 women have sacrificed thousands of hours and millions of beads of sweat. For many, it is their why – or at least one of a few.
And it would change their lives. Unlock endorsement opportunities. Put glitter all over their names and faces for years, if not decades, to come. As Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel wrote ahead of the semifinal:
It’s all on the table: money, fame, power and an advantage in the lengthy fight for what they believe in. A World Cup doesn’t get them everything that they want. It doesn’t win them a court case. But it helps, certainly a lot more than a ... defeat.
In order to become a watershed moment in American soccer, another world title must propel the domestic club league to new, infinitely sustainable heights.
What women’s soccer needs more than anything is for the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) to thrive. For it to be able to offer a minimum salary far higher than $16,538. For it to draw more stadium-going fans, more television viewers.
For it to do those things, it needs investment. And there are few things more attractive to investors than globally recognized athletes and personalities.
That, in theory, is what winning a World Cup can create. Then again, the NWSL existed on July 5, 2015 as well. That triumph pushed the league and the sport forward. But not to groundbreaking degrees. There is evidence that suggests 2019 would be bigger, more influential. But none of it is concrete.
What would a men’s victory over Mexico mean?
In comparison, Sunday’s nightcap is relatively inconsequential. It’s a trophy, but not a particularly coveted one in the grand scheme of things. It’s a rivalry game, but one that gets played every year.
It would be a nice generator of optimism, and a significant boost for head coach Gregg Berhalter in his first year on the job. It would build foundational belief and confidence that will allow him to continue to instill his ideas and philosophies in the men’s national team program. All of that, intangibly, could pay off in a big way come the 2022 World Cup.
Or it might not. It could turn out to be completely irrelevant in the long run.
So while Sunday, in the moment, will be a soccer fan experience unlike any other, it probably will not be the most transformative day in American soccer history. That label, for many reasons, still belongs to July 10, 1999.
Other ‘biggest day in U.S. soccer history’ candidates
The most impactful day in American soccer history is, and probably always will be, the day of the 1999 Women’s World Cup final. Because the sport will never again return to its pre-’99, now-unimaginable state. And because so many successes and advancements since have built on that afternoon at the Rose Bowl.
Every single person I ran this story’s query by mentioned that day. It is the clear dividing line between a sport lurking in the shadows and a sport that had arrived. It mattered not just to women’s soccer, but to men’s soccer and to other female sports. It continues to inspire entire generations of female athletes today.
Some other consequential days in U.S. soccer are:
June 17, 2002. “Dos a Cero.” USMNT 2, Mexico 0 in the World Cup Round of 16. It was the program’s first (and still only) World Cup knockout-stage victory. As Bob Contiguglia, U.S. Soccer’s president at the time, told Yahoo Sports in an email: “The 2002 WC gave U.S. Soccer international credibility and paved the way for the success of MLS. Without either of those successes” – 2002 and 1999 – “the sport would not be where it is today.”
November 19, 1989. Paul Caligiuri’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” – described elsewhere as a “billion-dollar goal” – beat Trinidad on the final matchday of 1990 World Cup qualifying and clinched the U.S. its first World Cup berth since 1950. The U.S. had already been awarded hosting rights for the 1994 edition. But there were fears that had the Yanks not qualified for ‘90, FIFA would go back on its promise and take its banner event elsewhere. Had that happened, MLS might not exist. But Caligiuri rendered that hypothetical moot.
November 30, 1991. The day of the United States’ first World Cup – er, 1st FIFA World Championship for Women's Football for the M&M's Cup – triumph. But women’s soccer didn’t really take off until ‘99.
July 10, 2011. Pinoe to Abby, in stoppage time of extra time to tie, and eventually beat, Brazil in the World Cup quarters. As U.S. Soccer chief communications officer Neil Buethe put it in an email: “Going into the 2011 World Cup, there was much lower interest in the team compared to now. We only had a little more than 5,000 fans at Red Bull Arena for our final send-off game. There were maybe five media following the team during the World Cup in Germany, and we were staring at going out in the quarterfinal – cementing what would have been our worst finish even in a World Cup. Abby’s goal against Brazil in the final seconds of regulation woke up America to what was going on in Germany. Losing in the Final was devastating, but the response back home when we arrived in New York was as if we had won. Our players' Twitter follower numbers exploded. Abby, Megan, Alex and others became household names. And ever since then, our attendance has stayed at a higher average number for a longer amount of time than ever before – better than post-99. Abby’s goal was the spark that lit the bonfire of interest we now see with this team and definitely should be considered one of the most important goals in U.S. Soccer history.”
Why Sunday will be special
What Sunday will have that none of those days did, of course, is the multiplicity – the 12-hour glow.
So while it might not provoke long-term sea change, it will be symbolic, no matter the results. Symbolic of soccer’s growth. The TV numbers will be proof. So will the nationwide enthusiasm, and the media coverage, and the family of four all decked out in USWNT garb that you run into at your local coffee shop or grocery store in between games.
Sunday is less a commencement of efforts to grow the game and more a celebration of them. Less an enabler of things to come, more a celebration of what already has. A celebration of July 10, 1999 and June 17, 2002. Of all that came before, of all that has come since, and of continued growth that no longer depends solely on two hours of heroism from 11 women.
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