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Opinion: Soccer fans still waiting for the U.S. women’s team

United States supporters cheer prior to a match against Sweden in the FIFA Women’s World Cup on Friday, June 12, 2015, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The U.S. and Sweden played to a scoreless draw.
United States supporters cheer prior to a match against Sweden in the FIFA Women’s World Cup on Friday, June 12, 2015, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The U.S. and Sweden played to a scoreless draw. The Canadian Press

Maybe it’ll happen for the United States women’s soccer team. Maybe the Americans will win the World Cup to set off a third wave of soccer craziness in Sacramento.

So far, you really can’t feel the energy. The women looked good in beating Australia 3-1, and they looked lucky to tie Sweden 0-0. So far, they’ve ignited a profound sense of wait-and-see.

“As far as this tournament goes, I don’t know if the U.S. can win,” longtime soccer fan Mae Chaplin said over a beer at Hot Italian. “I’m hoping they can, but it’s going to be a little bit tougher for them than it has been in years past.”

A year ago, the U.S. men’s team lit Sacramento on soccer fire during its run into the round of 16. Noontime regulars had to wait in line for a drink on game days when soccer fans packed bars all over town. It was the most fun you ever had until Republic FC won the USL championship in September to keep the passion hot.

The flames burned into 2015 with Republic FC fans filling an expanded Bonney Field and flooding the downtown-midtown party grid. Although it’s doing great at the gate, the team has slipped a bit on the field. Preki, the demanding coach, has a couple of months to get it fixed – or heads will roll out of Bonney the same as they do on the battlefields of “Game of Thrones.” At least that’s what Preki promises.

You hate to rely on FIFA for anything in these days of corruption and scandal. But the geniuses in Zurich are still the ones who put out the world rankings. You hope nobody was on the take when they listed the U.S. women second on the planet behind Germany entering the World Cup.

It’s probably an accurate assessment. The Americans should have won four years ago but suffered a penalty-kick upset loss in the final to Japan, which was probably the right karmic outcome, given the natural disasters that had ravaged the winner’s homeland that year. The U.S. evened it up by beating Japan for the gold in the 2012 Olympics. Coming into Canada, the U.S. had amassed a 7-1-2 record in 2015.

On a hot Friday night at Hot Italian, management reserved 40 seats for the Sacramento United Extreme 99, one of the best under-16 girls teams in Northern California. The club picked the U.S.-Sweden game to chomp pizza and build camaraderie. The match also showed the girls the upper limit of women’s soccer as an American team spectator sport. With the women’s pro game struggling for a foothold in the U.S. sports market, the national team represents the pinnacle of female soccer possibility in America, for the present at least.

“This is the highest level of American players you get to see if you’re a woman,” Sacramento United coach Greg Mellor said. “You don’t have the depth of the professional leagues, and we don’t have as much exposure. Whether it’s in person or on TV, this is the best opportunity for the girls to watch the best players we have in the country. They don’t get to see it like you’d see with the NFL or the NBA or baseball.”

What they saw Friday night was an American team that contented itself watching Sweden control the ball for most of the game. U.S. defender Meghan Klingenberg’s incredible play in the 81st minute prevented Sweden from winning. The Swedes’ Caroline Seger popped one from the left to an opening on the right that Klingenberg closed with a header up and out and off the crossbar.

Earlier, the referee didn’t see the hand ball in the box by U.S. forward Sydney Leroux. The rest of the world did on the TV replays, but the rest of the world did not have the authority to award Sweden a penalty kick.

So the U.S. is 1-0-1 through two matches in Group D play and likely will advance to the knockouts no matter what happens in Vancouver, British Columbia, against Nigeria on Tuesday. The scenarios for advancement are as wild as the winds off Hudson Bay, not far from Winnipeg, Manitoba, where the U.S. played its first two matches. Everything becomes much less complicated if the Americans beat Nigeria.

Highly ranked teams that look sluggish in the championships invite criticism of the coach, and Jill Ellis has come in for a bit of it.

Jerry Zanelli is the head man of the Sacramento-based California Storm. His outfit has been a way station toward the women’s soccer elite for players such as Alex Morgan of the current team and past American stars such Brandi Chastain, famous for showing her sports bra to celebrate the 1999 World Cup win, and Julie Foudy, another longtime national star and champion.

“I think the combinations Jill is putting together probably need more thought,” said Zanelli, who was surprised that Ellis started two World Cup rookies in Leroux and Christen Press against Sweden. “Either that, or she’s overthinking it. And the midfield is not like it’s been in the past.”

You could feel that the fans aren’t totally sold on this team. A blowout of Nigeria would help. Then it’ll be interesting to see if Sacramento’s soccer vibe gets going in full force again for the American women.

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