April 29, 2002

Women's Soccer Team Shares in Women's Soccer Celebration

April 29, 2002

By Elliott Almond
San Jose Mercury News

The day began with memories, perhaps the easiest way to measure history. And what was the women's soccer doubleheader at Spartan Stadium on Saturday if not a precious moment to recount?

There, underneath a ceiling of drab sky, were crisp passes by Sissi, the CyberRays' midfielder who grew up in Brazil kicking the heads of dolls around to practice her craft.

And over there, LaKeysia Beene of Gold River was diving headfirst on hard grass whenever a threat spiraled toward the goal in not one, but two games.

For five hours Saturday, world-class soccer graced Spartan Stadium in front of pig-tailed hooligans -- young female soccer fans -- who squealed in delight. To understand the significance of the CyberRays-Carolina and United States-Finland twin-bill, return to the summer of 1996.

About 60,000 screaming fans packed Sanford Stadium on the University of Georgia campus to watch the United States defeat China for the first women's soccer Olympic gold medal. Three years later, almost 100,000 flocked to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena to watch the same teams square off in the World Cup final. The latter figure remains the largest crowd to witness a women's sporting event, and they saw the Americans triumph on penalty kicks, the unforgettable winner coming from Brandi Chastain of San Jose.

``Brandi and I watched the men's World Cup final in '94 at the Rose Bowl and thought, `Could this ever happen for women?' '' recalled Santa Clara women's Coach Jerry Smith, Chastain's husband.

It could. Smith and the Broncos celebrated Saturday as well, honored for winning the NCAA championship in December.

The poignancy of the 1999 Women's World Cup helped kick-start the Women's United Soccer Association last year. Now the infant league is benefiting the sport. Beene probably would not be the starting goalkeeper for the United States had she not performed so successfully in leading the CyberRays to the 2001 WUSA title.

Such examples give U.S. soccer leaders hope for continued success. As the rest of world catches up, American coaches and administrators hope the infusion of talent from the collegiate level and the WUSA will keep the United States at the forefront.

A day such as Saturday portends good tidings for next year's Women's World Cup in China. Through the constant drumbeat provided by Guy Gayle of Hayward and Jorge Galazzo of Sunnyvale, the women played with poise and character in front of an announced crowd of 11,990.

Carolina defeated the CyberRays 2-1 in the first game. The Americans dominated Finland 3-0 in the nightcap.

The matches underscored what opportunity can for female athletes. It perhaps was best exemplified in Brooke O'Hanley of Palo Alto. A senior at the University of Portland, O'Hanley didn't have expectations of a professional career.

But she played her first WUSA game Saturday and has made great strides in one month playing with some of the world's best.

``It's definitely crazy,'' O'Hanley said. ``I never thought I would play it for a living, do what the men do.''

Devvyn Hawkins, a junior at Santa Clara who also plays on the national team, enjoyed the day in the stands with her Broncos teammates. From her vantage point she could see the young girls' admiring glances. It reminded Hawkins of how far the sport has come in her lifetime.

Before the WUSA, female players had few options after college -- unless they were among the world's best and qualified for the national team. The rest went on with their lives, perhaps joining adult mixed teams to satisfy their competitive urges.

``I was in the same position as these little girls, but I had no one to look up to,'' Hawkins said.

CyberRays rookie defender Danielle Borgman remembers watching a men's semipro indoor team in Cleveland and thinking, ``It'd be cool to have so many people cheering for you.'' When it happened Saturday, she felt overwhelmed.

Katia, the CyberRays' striker from Rio de Janeiro, hopes Brazilian women get the same reception some day.

``Maybe in five years men will have a different mentality and give the women support,'' she said.

Smith flew to San Jose on Saturday from San Diego, where he was coaching the U.S. under-21 national team. He noticed the girls swarming in the stands.

``You can just see it in their faces: the hope, the dream, the joy,'' he said. ``It really is the dream. That is something that, for the longest time, has been reserved for the boys.''

Bob Contiguglia, president of U.S. Soccer, has watched the glacial progress of American soccer for 25 years. He liked what he witnessed Saturday.

He called the three-tier U.S. system unique among the world's soccer countries. Few nations have as sophisticated an organization as does the United States. Many of the players competing Saturday started in kindergarten in youth leagues, then played in college and now professionally.

``I get choked up thinking about it,'' said Anne Cribbs of Palo Alto, who 42 years ago won an Olympic gold medal in swimming and co-founded the now-defunct American Basketball League.

But in the end, the day belonged to the girls. A few days after ``Take Your Daughter to Work Day,'' many started much earlier than the 4:30 p.m. kickoff.

Becky Gruener, 11, of Cupertino, had a 9:30 a.m. game with her DeAnza Force teammates. She still had plenty of energy for the doubleheader. Before the first match, she waited behind 20 others to get a moment with Michelle Akers, one of the best players in U.S. history. Akers, who is retired, signed her name to shirts, jackets, ticket stubs, posters and blank sheets of paper.

When it was her turn, Becky asked: ``Do you remember coming out and watching me?''

Akers: ``When?''

Gruener: ``When I was small.''

Akers: ``Here?''

Gruener: ``Yeah, at halftime.''

Akers: ``OK, I remember that.''

Gruener gave her a half-moon smile.

Everyone, it seemed, had a memorable moment.