Can women's soccer kick it up?
Breakers are already able to take advantage of World Cup momentum
- Scott Barboza/ESPNBoston.comA banner saluting Japan's Aya Sameshima and her country's World Cup win was displayed before the Boston Breakers game Sunday at Harvard Stadium.
ALLSTON, Mass. -- It didn't sink in for Amy LePeilbet until she was taking a stroll in Boston Common last week.
"Someone stopped me and asked if I was on the Women's World Cup team," the 29-year-old U.S. National Team defender said following the Boston Breakers' 2-2 tie with the Western New York Flash on Sunday night at Harvard Stadium.
The three-year Breakers veteran admitted that being pointed out on the street as a professional athlete is new territory. But the United States' last Cup run has provided added attention to her contemporaries in the Women's Professional Soccer League at home.
"You could just feel the energy," the Illinois native said of the support she and her U.S. teammates received in Germany. "I really think that helped carry us."
While World Cups come and go every four years, the challenge now thrust upon the world's elite women's footballers -- many of whom call America their professional home -- is how to grow the game. More than a decade removed from Brandi Chastain's heroics at the 1999 World Cup, women's professional soccer still finds itself as a novelty on the American sports palate.
However, Sunday night's match seemed like a step in the right direction.
Samba beats churned out by a drum corps filled every crevice of Harvard's Roman circus-style structure, setting the pace of play like a metronome. The Carnivale-like atmosphere wasn't solely inspired by the presence of Brazilian dynamo and former FIFA World Player of the Year Marta either. A great many World Cup heroes hailing from a number of nations were represented although some, such as Breakers striker Lauren Cheney (high ankle sprain) watched from the sideline, recovering from their international experience.[+] EnlargeScott Barboza/ESPNBoston.comAmy LePeilbet was among the five U.S. National Team members on the Breakers who was honored.
There were 6,222 announced in attendance, a figure well above the Breakers' season average of around 4,000 fans. Breakers public relations head Ryan Wood said it was the largest attendance of the season and among the top five draws in the team's three-year WPS history.
The occasion had the feel of a victory tour for the five members of the Breakers who represented the U.S. in Germany; there were eight Boston players in total who played at the World Cup. Perhaps the loudest ovation of the evening came at the beginning of the second half when U.S. starlet Alex Morgan checked into the game for the visitors.
Club team allegiance didn't much matter then. Nor did it matter when Morgan turned in a dazzling goal in the 87th minute, sending one past Breakers keeper Allissa Naeher with her back turned to the goal. The Cal product tied the match 2-2 with a flick of her left foot, sending it into the right-hand corner of the goal off the outside heel in one of the prettiest boots you'd ever see from a male or female footballer.
"The attention is all positive," said Morgan, whose whirlwind post-Cup experience included a trip to the "SportsCenter" set. "It's only been a week and it's been pretty hectic, but eventually the attention from the World Cup will die down. But anything we can do to bring attention to women's soccer is all worth it."
That attention hasn't been limited to the U.S. squad.
Defender Aya Sameshima of World Cup champion Japan has adopted the Breakers as her American home.
After March's catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, Sameshima was in need of a new team as her TEPCO Mareeze squad's season was canceled. Breakers coach Tony DiCicco needed a special waiver from FIFA to get Sameshima to the U.S., since the player transfer period already had passed. Sameshima, who also happened to work at the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, has settled into her new surroundings.
"Yes, this is my favorite town," Sameshima responded through a translator, hinting that something didn't quite deliver in translation.
Despite the language barrier, her Breakers teammates have made her feel right at home.
"My teammates have all been friendly," Sameshima said. "I'm very comfortable with them. I love them all."
The 2-2 match was just the start of the players' work. After meeting with the media, players from both sides walked through an autograph alley. Among them was the 22-year-old Morgan.
It's no surprise lucrative advertising contracts have followed the Cal product, who seems to have stepped out of central casting with her blend of California good looks and star appeal. But along with her U.S. teammates, the hard work has only begun in terms of building the universal brand of women's soccer.
"I was one of those players who was watching the '99 World Cup, and that motivated me to become a better player and focus on soccer more," Morgan said. "Going through the World Cup and coming back and seeing all the little girls screaming our names makes me feel good about and feel proud about what we accomplished."
Morgan admitted she hasn't had much time to soak in the scenes during the last couple of weeks, including taking the opportunity to digest her progress as a player.
"Hopefully, once everything dies down, I'll have a chance to look back at the game and my play in the World Cup," she said.
With that, she walked off to meet a crowd of adoring youngsters. She stayed until nearly every soccer ball, picture and T-shirt in sight was signed.
Scott Barboza is ESPNBoston.com's high schools editor.
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