Look North: Why You Should Be Paying Attention to the USWNT

In case you didn't know, Canada is currently hosting the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup, and you should be watching. 

Because listen.

We are in the midst of a cultural shift in American sports, which, in itself, is far from unprecedented, but unlike at any time in our past, this one has been led by women.

Whether you like it or not, soccer is coming to America (starring Eddie Murphy, Darth Vader, Oha, Arsenio from Arsenio, Eddie Murphy and featuring Louie Anderson as The Hero). According to ESPN FC, Major League Soccer has caught up with Major League Baseball in popularity among kids aged 12-17 for the first time since its inception in 1994. In other words: holy shit!

Poll Courtesy: espnfc.com

Poll Courtesy: espnfc.com

The reasons for this rise in popularity are many, but one that I believe cannot be overlooked--or overstated--is how successful our women's team has been since the 1999 World Cup. You remember it. Five full years had passed since America hosted the men's World Cup, and during that time our national soccer conversation had gone from: "Oh, neat, Brazilians--they better not mess up Soldier Field" to "Meola? What's that, a Mazda?" and then, while most of the sports-consuming country was flipping through channels, waiting that extra five minutes for TBS to get around to Braves v. Expos, Brandi Chastain appeared from the ether and provided us with one of the most iconic images in American sports history: 

I believe we began to pivot that day, albeit slowly, like a frigate coming about across the wind, and the impact of that kick is only now being fully realized. While its role as a pivot point for women's soccer has been well-documented, its importance to the idea Soccer in America has gone underreported, lost in the ocean of other factors which have contributed to soccer's rise: steroids in baseball, concussions in football, steroids in baseball again. All of which are valid. 

But up until Chastain's kick, Soccer in America was like Sushi in Murfreesboro. You could consume it, but you knew going in that you were probably going to end up disappointed, if not sick to your stomach. It was wholly unqualified to fill a vacuum should any of the major sports commit a damaging misstep, so when Brandi Chastain, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and the 1999 World Cup team won, America did a collective: 

#Nine 

#Nine 

Our women were the best soccer players in the world. Not basketball. Not softball. Soccer: the world's game. A game thoroughly unAmerican (You can't use your hands?!?!?!?!).That meant something. We weren't quite sure what, but it meant something because it gave us goose bumps. Go ahead, I dare you not to get goose bumps. 

Tell 'em, Freddie. 

Since then, the women's game has had its peaks and valleys, as has always been the case with Soccer in America. Like the White Walkers marching on the Wall, the progress has been slow and, at times, while we were busy focusing on Lebron James's hair or Tom Brady's balls or Theon Greyjoy's...balls, it has gone unnoticed. Makes sense, right? Changing cultural memes (redundant probably) doesn't happen overnight; it's a large apparatus with lots of moving parts, lots of entrenched beliefs and habits. It usually takes a generation to affect real change. 

Fast forward, then, to 2011 when the USWNT was once again in the World Cup Final, this time against Japan. The match was, at the time, you ready for this, ESPN's highest rated soccer match everaveraging over 13 million viewers. It was, at the time, the second most watched daytime telecast in the history of cable television, behind only that year's Rose Bowl (info from tvbythenumbers.com).

But why?  Why the sudden interest? Remember Brandi Chastain from thirty seconds ago? I know what that meant now. Brandi Chastain conquered the soccer world that day, which meant that America conquered the soccer world. And conquering the world is our jam. It's our signifier.  And in 2011, we were poised to do it again--to conquer a world we have historically had no business conquering, to take over the one club from which the world had theretofore managed to keep us out. While Japan ultimately beat us four years ago in Germany, our appetite for soccer glory had once again been whetted by a group of women giving everything they had for the Stars and Stripes--this time in front of 13 million people. 

From that point on there has been no turning back.

We have an urge now, a hunger to tame the only sports frontier still largely uncharted for us--and not just the women's game. We want to conquer men's soccer, too. Which is why MLS is growing, inspiring enthusiasm and in-game environments which have long been, quite literally, foreign to us. 

While the feasibility of Soccer in America is ultimately tied to the success of our men's team (#capitalism), it has been the women's team that has dragged soccer along while the men played catch-up. It has been the women who have commanded Americans to ask: "If the women can do it, why can't the men?" 

It's become part of the American Outlaw canon that if you want to truly call yourself an American soccer fan, you have to support the MLS. It makes sense because the MLS and USMNT are inextricably linked {1}. Of course, you can watch  your favorite Premier League team (Liverpool) or your favorite La Liga team (Real Madrid) or your favorite Bundesliga team (Borussia Dortmund), but if you want to belong when the National Team convenes, you'd better have a favorite MLS team (Portland Timbers) and be prepared to discuss them intelligently. Consequently, I believe that if you're going to call yourself a true American soccer fan, then supporting the USWNT is nonnegotiable. While it's true that there are several factors which have contributed to the growth of Soccer in America make no mistake that it's been our women who have been leading the charge. So, pay attention. We owe them our support. 

For more about the United States Women's National Team, visit American Soccer Quarterly

Footnote

1. In case you didn't know, Major League Soccer is the result of a promise by U.S. Soccer to FIFA in 1988 that it would create a Division 1 soccer league upon winning the vote to host the 1994 World Cup. Since then, it's provided a club home for nearly every prominent member of the USMNT at some stage in their careers.