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Dan Shaughnessy

Impact finally kicked in

He’s swept up by US women’s ride

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / July 17, 2011

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The tipping point for me came Thursday morning when my friend Ken Nigro called from Florida. We covered baseball together in Baltimore a million years ago. Ken is over 70, still reads seven newspapers per day (actual newspapers, my friends), and loves baseball more than any man on the planet. He wanted to know if I was going to be in Tampa to watch the Red Sox this weekend. I told him, ‘No.’ Then he switched topics.

“Forget about baseball,’’ said Nigro. “This week I saw the greatest sporting event I’ve ever seen.’’

“Brazil, right?,’’ I asked.

“Yeah,’’ he replied. “That women’s soccer game was the greatest game ever. I’ve never been a soccer fan, but I gotta admit, this is pretty good.’’

That seals it. Soccer has arrived. The Worldwide Leader is right again. Like millions of other Americans, Ken Nigro is setting his Old School Timex to watch today’s women’s World Cup final, featuring the United States and Japan, in Frankfurt.

Count me as one of the last holdouts. I’m one of those ugly Americans who’d normally prefer to stick needles in my eyes than watch soccer. Parental duties required days on the soccer sideline when my kids were little, but that was different. Watching grown-ups play soccer on television has forever been a chore.

You know the familiar arguments. It always seems to be nil-nil. No natural progression toward scoring. Too much flopping. The subjective and ever-ambiguous injury/stoppage time. No timeouts for bathroom breaks. Not enough violence. They always score the only goal when you’re tying your shoe. You can’t use your hands - most of the best things in sports are done with hands.

It has bothered me that soccer buffs from foreign lands can’t understand America’s resistance to soccer as a spectator sport. I consider myself tolerant of my European and South American friends who think baseball is boring. Why would anyone love baseball unless they grew up watching it? I only ask that folks from soccer lands extend us the same understanding.

But watching the US women’s team has been a thrill. They have personality. They score a lot of goals. They’re tough when the chips are down.

Women’s soccer was kind of a big deal 12 years ago when the Americans won the Cup before 90,000 at the Rose Bowl. That’s when Brandi Chastain famously shucked her shirt and celebrated on the field wearing a black sports bra. That was considered the Title IX championship. Now they’re trying to become the first women’s team in history to win a third Cup. And they have our attention.

Last Sunday’s game against Brazil goes right up there as one of the great sporting events of this, or any year. It might not be USA hockey’s victory over Russia in Lake Placid in 1980, but it’s on the medal platform. It was a terrific demonstration of athleticism and the American spirit of never quitting.

The United States led, 1-0, in the 68th minute when Brazil tied it on a second second-chance penalty kick. It was still tied at the end of regulation even though the Americans played with only 10 players for the final 59 minutes because Rachel Buehler was red carded for fouling Brazilian legend Marta in the penalty box.

Brazil scored quickly in overtime, and it looked like Team USA might be heading home. But late in the second frame of the kooky stoppage time (only one guy on the planet knows when the game is going to end), veteran Abby Wambach headed home a perfect cross from Megan Rapinoe. Our women won it when smashmouth goalie Hope Solo smothered a penalty shot by Daiane Menezes, and Ali Krieger drilled the deciding PK.

“I think it’s one of the most amazing things in sports history,’’ said Solo, who has repaired her image after ripping her coach and fellow goalie during the 2007 Cup, following a 4-0 loss to Brazil before which Solo was benched.

Three days after beating Brazil, America’s team advanced to today’s final with a 3-1 win over France. The US scored two late goals, including another header by Wambach.

Great stuff. Maybe it wasn’t Mike Eruzione’s goal or Bobby Thomson’s homer. Maybe it wasn’t Joe Namath guaranteeing victory in Super Bowl III, nor Carlton Fisk clanging one off the foul pole in ’75. But it was pretty good, even for those of us who’ve traditionally ignored the sport.

Today the US women’s team is all the rage. Tom Hanks, Ellen DeGeneres, and LeBron James are tweeting about women’s soccer. ESPN is getting strong ratings. Lauren Cheney is a rising star. Solo is a star. Wambach is a star. Coach Pia Sundhage is a genius. And Ken Nigro is putting down his Sunday Times and watching the Women’s World Cup.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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