CARY — The U.S. women’s soccer team wrapped up a 3-0 run through group play in the World Cup qualifying round Wednesday with a 7-0 rout of Trinidad and Tobago at WakeMed Soccer Park.
The Americans were dominant, as we’ve come to expect, with a combined 18-0 drubbing of Group A opponents. They just need to defeat Costa Rica today in Frisco, Texas, to claim their place in France next summer with a shot at defending the 2015 title.
A victory there would give the U.S. an unprecedented fourth Women’s World Cup championship — an incredible run dating back to the first title in 1991, and including the groundbreaking squad from 1999.
That team gave us the watershed moment of Brandi Chastain’s championship game-winning penalty kick and subsequent shirt-snatching celebration. It was the most iconic scene I can recall in sports. It went so far beyond the pitch that the image was splashed across covers of Newsweek and Time; conversations were happening about feminine power, women as elite athletes and equality. Young girls replaced their Britney Spears posters with Mia Hamm’s inspirational quotes.
Current Team USA forward Crystal Dunn turned 7 years old the week before the 1999 title, and she was caught up in the wave of fascination that followed it.
“I’m from a small town on Long Island and everyone there started playing soccer so, for me, I just wanted to be around friends and classmates,” she said before practice Tuesday.
“I didn’t come from a soccer background, so I chose this sport based on how it made me feel and not the history so much, but just me purely enjoying the game every day.”
Dunn’s generation picked up the ball and ran with it. American women have become the usual favorite at international soccer tournaments, and the National Women’s Soccer League just wrapped up a sixth season as the number of girls in the U.S. who play soccer has been on a steady climb for almost two decades.
The Carolina Courage won its second straight NWSL Shield less than a month ago, capping the most successful season in the league’s history with a championship-game victory on the road after Hurricane Florence made their home field unplayable.
Dunn scored eight goals in 22 games for the Courage, and she helped UNC claim its record 22nd overall and most recent NCAA championship in 2012.
Her ties to the Tar Heel state make her a local favorite, and the women’s national team has been a strong draw in Cary, averaging 5,644 patrons across three games — that includes a low of almost 4,000 at a rainy, Wednesday night blowout.
There was a time when those kinds of turnouts at a women’s team sport would have been surprising. Those times are gone.
“That paradigm has shifted,” Dunn says.
“We play this game and we play it at a high level and it doesn’t matter if you’re a woman, you can love this sport and be an elite athlete and even if you aren’t, you can still enjoy the sport.”
It’s refreshing to see women excel in place where strength trumps sex appeal, where powerful is more important than pretty.
The message that these women are sending is one of hard work and dedication.
“I feel like I live, breathe and die soccer, but that just comes with the job. It’s tough being on the national team and also playing for a club. A lot of our time is dedicated to this game. We don’t really get an offseason.
“But I enjoy it. I’m with some of my best friends. I get to play a sport for a living and as much as we sacrifice, there are a lot of great moments and working to hopefully be a part of a World Cup is one of them.
“I just enjoy waking up and being able to play with some of my best buds,” Dunn says.
She’s a taut 5-foot-1, looking like a coil of energy ready to burst. Her brown eyes are sharp and eager. She’s quick, focused. And as an African-American, she’s part of a small but growing group of minority players.
Representation may be vital to the sport’s growth and survival, but love of the game is what has driven Dunn to reach the highest level.
“It doesn’t matter what you look like, who you are, how much money you have,” Dunn says. “Play the sport for the joy of it. Don’t do it for anyone other than yourself.”
Sunday Life editor Monica Holland can be reached at email@example.com or 910-486-3518.