Fifteen years ago today, I was at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena watching my first World Cup match. It was the U.S. vs China and Team USA won on PKs. President Clinton sat to my right and Hanson performed at halftime. The world watched as the women’s team – yes, women – claimed global glory. The year was 1999 and I’m not sure we’ve ever matched that degree of enthusiasm for women’s sports.
While soccer may not be as highly regarded in the U.S as in other countries, it is gradually earning respect thanks in large part to the 99ers as well as the performance this summer of the men’s national team. And if you believe all the media reports, Team USA – led by Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard – has a burgeoning fan base that will enthusiastically support the sport for years to come.
Dempsey had some of the most memorable moments from this summer’s World Cup tournament and goalie Tim Howard’s saves were a big part of America’s (limited) success. Twenty-five million viewers tuned into the Belgium contest making it the most-watched non-football sporting event of 2014 as well as the highest-rated game in U.S. soccer history. This for a team that has never made it out of the round of 16 in the history of the tournament.
Since 1991, the FIFA Women’s World Cup has been held the year following the men’s. Unlike the men, however, the U.S. women’s national team is a perennial soccer powerhouse and worth the adulation bestowed on their male counterparts. The women are tied for the most World Cup championships with two (1991, 1999). They placed runner-up in 2011 and also have three third-place finishes (1995, 2003, and 2007). Despite their on-field success, the women have not garnered nearly the same off-field recognition. Yes – telecasts of their championship games have fared well in ratings but based on their world dominance, they should be pulling in far more fans than the men’s team.
In 2011, Wambach became the first soccer player ever — man or woman — to be awarded the AP Athlete of the Year. She was also awarded the 2012 FIFA World Player of the Year, becoming the first American woman to earn the award in a decade. Last May, Wambach passed fellow American Mia Hamm as the all-time goal-scoring leader in women’s International competition. You may have heard about the milestone, but there’s a good chance it flew under the radar.
Despite the above stats, former USMNT striker Landon Donovan (who in a bit of controversy was left off the roster for this year’s World Cup) is often touted as the best U.S. forward. In a recent Jezebel post, writer Valerie Alexander asked American commentators to please stop announcing that Landon Donovan is the “all-time U.S. leading goal scorer.” He is not. With 57 international goals, he’s not even in the Top Five.
The all-time U.S. leading goal scorer is Abby Wambach, with 167 goals, followed by Mia Hamm (158), Kristine Lilly (130), Michelle Akers (105) and Tiffeny Milbrett (100). In fact, Abby Wambach is the all-time leading goal scorer in the world, among all soccer players, male or female.
Alexander continues, “I don’t want to take anything away from what Landon Donovan has achieved. It is commendable. But every time he sits there, silently allowing that phrase to be rattled off — “all-time leading U.S. goal scorer” — without pointing out that he is the all-time leading men’s goal scorer, it does take away from what Abby Wambach and Mia Hamm have achieved — total world domination.”
At the other end of the field – in the net – are two other star players: Howard and Hope Solo. Howard became a household name last week making 16 heroic saves in the U.S. vs. Belgium game but the UNWNT’s Solo is still the best goalkeeper in the world. She is consistently a game-changer whose acrobatic saves have turned the score around for United States on many of occasions.
In the 2014 World Cup Howard earned a reputation as being the most accomplished goal keeper in USMNT history. During the Americans 1-nil loss to the Germans in the group stage, he surpassed former U.S. starter Kasey Keller for the most U.S. goalkeeper international caps with his 103rd appearance. Keller had 47 shutouts in 102 caps while Solo had 71 in 152 caps. While both are great Washington treasures, Keller’s 46.0% shutout-to-appearance rate versus Solo’s 46.7% gives Solo the edge. (h/t to @CorgCube )
When it comes to athleticism and quick reactions in goal, there is no one better than Solo. Her skills are comparable to those of Howard, who frequently bails the U.S. men out of tough situations. But while he is widely hailed as one of top goalkeepers in the world with an unparalleled kicking game, Solo is the most dominant goalie in the world right now, male or female.
Solo has always been fearless in the box, fiercely protecting her turf and knocking down all the shots fired at her. She posted five clean sheets during 2012 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying in January, and her shutout streak of 454 minutes dating back to the end of the 2008 tournament is a new record.
The 32-year-old Solo earned her 71st career shutout earlier this summer as the Americans beat France 1-0 in an exhibition June 14 in Tampa, Florida (tying Briana Scurry for the women’s national team shutout record). In 18 Olympic and World Cup appearances, Solo has recorded eight shutouts and allowed just 19 goals.
Leading up to next year’s Women’s World Cup, Solo has been playing for the Seattle Reign. She sat out three recent games but started in goal during their latest victory (2-1) at the home of the Western New York Flash (Abby Wambach’s team). The Reign announced she now has a goals against average of 0.833:
Not to take anything away from the U.S. men’s team – who battled brilliantly to make it out of the group stage and won America’s hearts during their spirited game against Belgium, but let’s give the women their due as well.
After a rocky period following the departure of coach Pia Sundhage, the USWNT is now under the helm of Jill Ellis and expected to perform well in Canada when women’s soccer takes center stage next summer. With Solo in the net and Wambach on the field (along with teammates Alex Morgan Sydney Leroux, Tobin Heath, Kelly O’Hara, Carli Lloyd, etc.) there is a good chance the women will outperform the men (again) when it’s their turn to compete. Why not alert some of the sport’s newest fans to that fact – and get some national pride going for the female super stars as well. They deserve it.