Over the weekend FIFA released “United Passions”—its self-financed, self-congratulatory motion picture about the organization’s growth under now-embattled president Sepp Blatter—to the US market. The widely-panned $30 million-movie grossed just $607 across 10 theaters from coast to coast, prompting an avalanche of scornful headlines and underlining how out of touch soccer’s scandal-ridden governing body has become.
But a much juicier script is about to play out north of the border in Canada.
The U.S. women’s national team is set to open its pursuit of the FIFA Women’s World Cup trophy vs. Australia in Winnipeg on Monday evening (7:30 pm ET, broadcast on Fox Sports 1, NBC Universo)—and though the tournament has barely started for Abby Wambach, Hope Solo & Co., their story already looks like something Hollywood would dream up.
A two-time world championship program that hasn’t tasted the sport’s top honor in 16 years carries the hopes of an adoring nation. A stubborn, iconic striker leads an aging crop of veterans with one more chance to reach the top of the mountain before a generational shift sweeps them into retirement. A fiery, exquisitely talented goalkeeper is so crucial to her team’s title hopes that even a flawed character and skeletons in the closet can’t keep her off the field.
A long and growing list of rivals and enemies lie in wait to ambush them, dreaming of killing the giant. And the chauvinistic governing body charged with organizing and promoting the tournament itself has created multiple sideshows to steal the spotlight from the players themselves, from corruption to a bullheaded insistence on staging the entire thing on artificial turf.
There’s no end to the distractions and hoopla swirling around the USWNT, who are coached by Northern Virginia native Jill Ellis and feature several players with D.C.-area ties. Even in the hours leading up to Monday’s game, another storm rumbled back to life as ESPN released an investigative report on the 2014 domestic violence incident involving Solo, her half-sister and her nephew in Kirkland, Washington.
It’s a chapter in her stormy life story that most thought was concluded. But her half-sister, Teresa Obert, has now decided to speak out on the incident for the first time, and prosecutors have moved to re-open the case on appeal.
Ellis and her players deflected questions about the situation when asked about it in pregame press conferences, referring to the “bubble” that the team has encased itself in for the World Cup campaign. It’s a mentality they’ve grown accustomed to. Solo’s legal troubles-she’s also been involved in domestic disputes and DUI cases with her husband, ex-NFL standout Jerramy Stevens-Wambach’s outspoken remarks in the media and injury concerns regarding star striker Alex Morgan are just the most recent flashpoints to negotiate for a team who receive media attention and fan support like no other women’s team on earth.
“We’re really focused on the Australia game,” Wambach told reporters in Winnipeg on Sunday. “We’re excited about the game tomorrow. You may or may not believe it, you may think that we are being advised not to talk, but the reality is that we are so excited. We finally feel like the World Cup is here. We’ve waited for years. We’ve waited for so long.”
Stacked with veteran savvy and a diverse array of talent, the US is pegged by most pundits as favorites - albeit very narrow ones- to win the Women’s World Cup, which kicked off with the host nation’s narrow 1-0 win over China on Saturday. But even if they can shut out the noise and produce their best soccer, the USWNT face an arduous road to the trophy, which will be decided in the championship final in Vancouver on July 5.
They must advance out of a four-team group that includes Australia, Sweden and Nigeria dubbed this tournament’s “Group of Death” - though with two or possibly even three of the teams advancing to the 16-team knockout stage, it’s more a “Group of Difficulty” for Ellis’ team, with plenty of margin for error at the start. They’ll be keen to finish in first place, however, to ensure less travel and more favorable matchups in the latter rounds.
Ranked No. 10 in the latest FIFA rankings, Australia have never beaten the USWNT in 24 tries. But they’ll ask questions of the Americans with a pacey front line led by veteran striker Lisa De Vanna, a former Washington Spirit player with a prickly personality, but blazing speed and a penchant for spectacular goals.
The “Matildas” are in many ways the antithesis of the US: Short on superstars, but heavily reliant on youth and unburdened by hype or expectations. While the USWNT are well-paid by the U.S. Soccer Federation and many also add lucrative endorsement deals to that income, many of the Matildas hold down side jobs to make ends meet and only went full-time this year, ahead of the World Cup. Keep an eye on pint-sized playmaker Katrina “Mini” Gorry, a 5-foot dynamo in central midfield who could be Australia’s ace in the hole.
Can US women produce the storybook ending that they, and their millions of fans, crave? Will the action on the field finally outshine the drumbeat of FIFA scandals and embarrassments?
Buy your ticket and take the ride, starting tonight.
By Charles Boehm, who covered the USMNT and the World Cup for Gothamist last year. He has covered MLS and the American soccer scene since 2004, contributing to MLSSoccer.com, The Soccer Wire, and USSoccerPlayers.com.