The rest of the world is catching up to the United States in soccer.
Say again? In soccer?
Sure in the women's game, where the Americans have won two of the three World Cups and an Olympic gold medal.
While the United States once again will be the favorite for the upcoming women's World Cup, the competition this fall will be more intense and balanced than ever. And the main reason is the WUSA.
The women's league not only has provided a showcase for players such as Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain, but also for Marinette Pichon and Charmaine Hooper. Players from France, Canada, Germany, Brazil, Norway, Sweden and China have had a strong impact in the 3-year-old league.
It's brought the world into the World Cup, where previously only a handful of teams were particularly competitive.
''No doubt giving the opportunity to play on a full-time professional level enhances their game,'' says Chastain, the hero of the 1999 championship with her Cup-winning penalty kick. ''The Canadas and Germanys and other countries, they were contenders in '99, but the gap really is getting closed.
''I think there has been an indelible mark placed upon international soccer because of the WUSA. It is us as Americans putting a footprint on international soccer and international players putting their footprint on American soccer.''
Those footprints range from France's Pichon and her remarkable finishing touches to the playmaking savvy of Brazil's Sissy to the goalkeeping of Canada's Karina LeBlanc. They range from the breakaway threats of Germany's Maren Meinert to the defensive steadfastness of Canada's Sharolta Nonen.
The WUSA has been a boon not only to the foreigners but just about everyone who has played in the league. U.S. collegians with nowhere to go professionally after school have found a home. So have the top Americans who served as founders of the league.
Although TV ratings have been minuscule and attendance inconsistent, the quality of the matches has gotten better each season.
''Unquestionably, what has happened with the appearance of the league is our top players have received wonderful competitive environments to continue to hone their game,'' says Anson Dorrance, who has coached North Carolina to 16 national titles and also guided the 1991 U.S. team to the World Cup crown.
''What the foreign players get is a sense of how competitive we are consistently. One of my complaints when I would watch foreign club teams and even national teams, I was stunned at the lack of intensity and the very low fitness standards,'' he says.
''The way we sort of rewrote the book for women's soccer in 1986 was with our own competitive passion and mentality and commitment to fitness. That changed the landscape of how these teams would have to play against us.''
Now, the WUSA has further changed the landscape so much so that previous also-rans such as Canada and France become dangerous, while the Germans and Brazilians become true title threats.
Four years ago, the Americans stormed through the first round against Denmark, Nigeria and North Korea, yielding one goal and scoring 13. No one is expecting anything like that again.
Dorrance believes the last team the United States wants to see in its first-round group is Canada, led by Hooper.
''We have five players in the league this year and that can only help better our players,'' Hooper says. ''In the past, we'd be lucky if our players could play after the college season was done (in November).
''We're playing at a very high level against really good players and you will be pushed every day to go out and play these games, and you'll be better in the end.''
Of course, it's not just the non-Americans who are getting better in the WUSA. The players who will form the core of the U.S. national team in this decade Aly Wagner, Abby Wambach, Danielle Slaton are becoming stars in the league.
''The training sessions are especially great, there's always intensity and you're playing against amazing players all of the time,'' San Diego midfielder Wagner says. ''It is huge for improving your individual skills in a great training environment.
''Otherwise, if I was back home, I had to work hard to find someone to train with. Instead, you now have an intense competition in training when you are scrimmaging, trying to beat world class players. At home, you might be going against a cone or shooting against a wall.
''In the WUSA, where both teams can win, and it's a hard physical battle for 90 minutes. ... It keeps you going and gives you a glimpse of what international play will be like.''
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