For the first time in five years since the WUSA folded in 2003, the U.S. women's team will not be playing for national pride, medals or trophies. The "Achieve Your Gold Tour" might be a well-deserved victory lap for the Olympic gold medal winners, but it's also a rehearsal for 18 women who are gearing up for a spot in the professional limelight (Abby Wambach, Leslie Osborne and Cat Whitehill are still rehabbing injuries, and Briana Scurry has not been allocated to a WPS team).
When Swedish coach Pia Sundhage joined the U.S. Soccer Federation almost one year ago when she was hired Nov. 13, 2007, there were glimmers of a revolutionary change. Now, with a gold medal and a growing legion of followers, Sundhage and the U.S. women's squad represent the hybrid of two generations -- what they hope is a winning formula to transcend a women's professional sports model that has underperformed thus far.
Regardless, cautious optimism abounds in the U.S. women's camp. "I think it's a relief that the allocation is over and we're all on our new WPS teams," said defender Heather Mitts, who was allocated to the Boston Breakers. "Now the wagers and smack talk begins, so that's the fun part. We're looking forward to playing for our cities, having a place to call home and competing every weekend. It's a win-win."
After putting on a show for fans against Ireland in the first stage of the post-Olympic tour, outscoring the Irish by an aggregate mark of 5-0 in three games, the U.S. women have a tougher opponent in South Korea. While the two teams haven't played since 1999 despite the United States' recent trip to the Peace Queen Cup, the South Koreans are expected to be the underdog.
|U.S. women's schedule|
|U.S. vs. South Korea
Univ. of Richmond Stadium, Richmond, Va.
6 p.m. ET
U.S. vs. South Korea
Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio
7:30 p.m. ET
U.S. vs. South Korea
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
7 p.m. ET
U.S. vs. China
Ford Field, Detroit, Mich.
7:30 p.m. ET
The Yanks are on the fast track to a record-breaking year, already posting a 29-1-1 record in 2008, the most wins in a calendar year in U.S. history. The scary part? The Americans have seven more games left before the New Year rolls around.
Additionally, three players (Lindsay Tarpley, Shannon Boxx and Heather O'Reilly) have reached their 100th cap this year, and a fourth, Angela Hucles, is only three games away from becoming the 24th player in U.S. history to reach the mark.
"I think we have put ourselves in a good position to take things even further as a team," said Hucles, a forward who will be playing for the Boston Breakers. "We have a good foundation that we've built coming off of this Olympics and the training leading up to it, and with the return of our teammates who suffered injuries this past year, we'll be even stronger."
South Korea is a technical, organized team, with the capability of finishing well. One would think there isn't a lot at stake for the U.S. women, but every game will be a tryout for players to establish their value to hometown fans and their new coaches. For a team of stars, WPS provides an entirely different platform for personalities to emerge and become the new faces of a franchise.
The team will be coming off a one-month hiatus, in which various members have been getting new apartments in order, taking mini-vacations -- all while getting individual workouts in. But mostly, the women's national team members have been mentally preparing for an entirely different challenge: playing soccer in front of a regular home crowd.
Heather Mitts, who has seen the WUSA come and go, reaffirmed the importance of the next few months.
"The league couldn't come at a better time because these next two years are when we need it the most," Mitts said. "It will be great to have a competitive league to continue training all the up-and-coming players in the U.S.
"Abby Wambach, Shannon Boxx and I all got our chance with the U.S. team from the last league, so I expect there to be a lot of new fresh faces. This league will only help the U.S. to continue to be one of the best."
Lindsey Dolich is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.