Who's Watching The Women's World Cup?

The U.S. women's soccer team advances to the World Cup finals Sunday, the first time since 1999. NPR's Tom Goldman explains the team's remarkable run, who's watching the 2011 tournament, and how that stacks up against previous women's World Cups.

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NEAL CONAN, host: In Germany, the U.S. team continues to dazzle in the Women's World Cup, and heart seems as important as talent as they come from behind with a last-second goal against Brazil, then came alive after being outplayed by France for much of yesterday's semifinal match. People are even talking about gutsy coaching. They play Japan in the finals on Sunday, and people have begun to take notice. Ratings here in the U.S. more than doubled since the tournament began. Are you watching? Give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email talk...

(SOUNDBITE OF COUGH)

CONAN: ...excuse me, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman joins us from Portland, Oregon. And Tom, this is great stuff, but I have to begin to ask you first about the news of the day. A judge in Washington, D.C. declared a mistrial in the perjury trial of baseball great Roger Clemens.

TOM GOLDMAN: Yeah. There's a shocker. U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, you know, going into this trial, people said, you know, he's a tough guy, don't mess with him, and I think the prosecution found out firsthand today. This from the people who were in the courtroom, said the prosecution made a huge blunder. Basically what they did was they presented evidence that in pretrial discussions that the judge has with lawyers, and they say we're going to allow this evidence in, this evidence not in, they decided on a certain evidence that they weren't going to allow in that the prosecution presented today.

And the judge apparently was fuming, and he apologized to jurors for, in his words, wasting their time and spending so much taxpayer money only to call off the case. He said there are rules that we play by, and those rules are designed to make both sides receive a fair trial. And he said the prosecutors broke the rules, and he said the ability of Roger Clemens to get a fair trial with this jury would be very difficult, if not impossible, so he declared a mistrial.

CONAN: And as I understand it, the prosecution was playing a videotape of Roger Clemens' testimony before the congressional committee where allegedly he committed perjury, and they played a question from a member of Congress that alluded to a statement by the wife of Andy Pettitte, his teammate with the New York Yankees and the Houston Astros, in which Laura Pettitte said Andy told me that, yes, Roger had had a conversation with him in which admitted using HGH.

GOLDMAN: Yeah. And the irony of this is this trial appears, at least for now, to be scuttled by, you know, a fairly minor character in this thing. I mean, Andy Pettitte's testimony was going to be a big deal for the prosecution - Pettitte recounting a conversation that he said he had with Roger Clemens in which Roger Clemens admitted using banned human growth hormone, HGH. And Pettitte had also said that he had a conversation that same day with his wife, Laura, telling her about the conversation with Clemens. Well, pretrial, Judge Walton said, you know what, we're not going to allow that because Laura Pettitte wasn't there at the original - the alleged original conversation.

CONAN: So this is hearsay. It might buttress Andy Pettitte's credibility that he did tell somebody immediately afterwards, but it's hearsay about Roger Clemens.

GOLDMAN: Exactly. And would be prejudicial, Judge Walton said, and you know you know, exactly, hearsay, and you want to present hard evidence. And so, yes, they played a videotape from that 2008 congressional hearing in which Representative Cummings was talking about Laura Pettitte's testimony, and the judge apparently called the lawyers up to, you know, he called them forward and at the same time they left on the video screen kind of frozen her affidavit or part of her affidavit in which she said, you know, I heard, Andy told me this or that...

CONAN: Right.

GOLDMAN: ...so it was just there for the jury to see. And I was hearing from someone that, interestingly, Rusty Hardin, the very cagey and flamboyant defense attorney for Roger Clemens, didn't object when the prosecution started to do this, in a sense almost luring them into this, knowing what was going to happen. And...

CONAN: And the longer that it lasted, the more likely the judge was going to be fuming.

GOLDMAN: And certainly and absolutely, and the judge said that. And the prosecutors apparently said, look - I can't remember the legal term for this - but they said, look, can we just kind of ask the jurors to forget this or throw this bit out? And the judge reportedly said something like, you know, this bell has already been rang. You can un-ring it.

CONAN: And so the mistrial declared, the judge, as you mentioned, apologized to the jurors for wasting their time. As I understand it, there will now be another hearing come September...

GOLDMAN: Yeah.

CONAN: ...about whether the government is going to go ahead with the case.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, exactly. And then the whole issue of double jeopardy gets - comes in here, whether you can try a person for the same offense twice. And some people say, once you call the first witness, which has already happened, had already happened in the Clemens' trial, you can't. And so, some are saying this prosecution has sunk.

CONAN: A very high-profile case here in Washington, D.C. We're going to have to see whether they're going to be able to proceed at all in the perjury trial against Roger Clemens. But, Tom...

GOLDMAN: Yeah.

CONAN: ...let's see if we can get back to something that - well, one of the reasons we like sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVE NEWS)

IAN DARKE: To Rapinoe, and everybody is going to come forward now. Rapinoe gets a cross in. It's towards Wambach. Goal. Can you believe this? Abby Wambach has saved the USA's life in this World Cup.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS)

JULIE FOUDY: I can't believe it, and what applause. That was by Megan Rapinoe.

CONAN: That's Ian Darke and Julie Foudy, with the call on ESPN and, well, one of the most dramatic moments in any kind of sports recently, maybe this whole summer, Tom.

GOLDMAN: Hey, Neal, where did you get that tape? I haven't heard that before.

CONAN: No. I got it from one of your pieces. I don't know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GOLDMAN: It's only the most replayed bit of footage, maybe in the history of sport. It's just amazing, at least for this week, you know how quickly things change.

CONAN: I think you're talking about the Giants win the pennant, the Giants. But, anyway...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: ...this is the moment, the latest goal ever scored in a World Cup soccer game, the 122nd minute. It enabled the United States to tie Brazil in the quarterfinals of the World's Cup and, well, they go on to win it in the penalty kicks after that.

GOLDMAN: Mm-hmm. That was phenomenal. And then, of course, yesterday, against France, there she was again, airborne, Abby Wambach, you know. I can imagine the, you know, the opponents kind of looking up and seeing this shadow coming over the sun and there's Abby Wambach rising. And it's like, oh, my God, we're doomed, you know. She - going into the tournament, Abby Wambach already was feared as an airborne player, what she can do in the air, and she's proved that, you know, obviously, the last couple of games.

She did yesterday against France in the semi-finals, when she broke a tie with, you know, a little over 10 minutes left in the game. It was tense at that point. France was playing very well, outplaying the U.S. at times during the game. And there was the corner kick from Lauren Cheney, and here's comes Abby and 2-1. And then, Alex Morgan tacked on another goal a few minutes later, 3-1, on to the finals.

CONAN: And the coach of the team seemed to inspire her players with some timely substitutions.

GOLDMAN: She did. She got great credit for that. She brought in Megan Rapinoe. Rapinoe, obviously, was the midfielder who was on the front end of that amazing play to Abby Wambach. She was the one who left-footed that perfect kick - all due credit to Abby Wambach for what she did, but that kick was spot on. And so, Megan Rapinoe had been a starter coming into the World Cup, and then she got relegated to the bench. But to her credit, kept her spirits up. Instead of sulking on the bench, she thought about, okay, how can I contribute when I come in? And she made a huge difference when she came in late in the game against France.

Pia Sundhage, the American coach, also brought in Alex Morgan, the 22-year-old, the youngest on the team. She ended up scoring the final goal. And then she moved - a tactical decision - moved Lauren Cheney to the center of the midfield. And that combination of things really worked. And, you know, I was just listening to, actually, a conference call going on right now from Frankfurt with the U.S. team, which I left to come on and talk to you, Neal.

CONAN: Oh, well, thank you so much.

GOLDMAN: Always a pleasure. And Hope Solo, the U.S. goalkeeper, was talking about Pia Sundhage and what she has loved about Sundhage as a coach since 2008, when Sundhage came on. And she said, she's much more of a laid-back coach that I've ever had. This is Hope Solo talking. And she wants to push players to be creative and think for themselves on the field.

A lot of coaches inject themselves a lot, and Hope Solo said she makes us think and dissect things ourself when we're watching film. She lets the game come to us. It's a freedom to play the game how we think it should be played. And Hope Solo said, we need guidance but every player wants freedom on the field. And it brings joy, how you played the game when you were a little kid. So, you know, big kudos to Pia Sundhage, although as we were just talking about, she did inject herself in the French game but to great effect.

CONAN: We should also point out, Japan, an underdog in this competition, beat highly-favored home team, Germany, in the quarter finals. And they have a Cinderella story of their own.

GOLDMAN: They really do. And, of course, there's the emotional thing behind the Japanese team, actually, after they beat two-time defending champion, Germany, they unfurled a banner on the field, thanking the world for the support after the, you know, the earthquake and tsunami. So there's a real emotional component to what the Japanese are doing. But they're playing great soccer. They are on a roll. They not only beat Germany, then they beat Sweden yesterday, a team that had beaten the U.S. earlier.

And Pia Sundhage was asked today, and Hope Solo, in this conference call, you know, all right, who are we getting in Japan in this final on Sunday? And the U.S. has beaten Japan three times this year already, a couple of times in May, in fact. But Sundhage said, they're much better. They're much more sophisticated in their attack around the goal. They're still very good on the ball in position. They hang on to the ball and control the tempo. And Hope Solo said, you know, they're starting to take more outside shots than they have in the past, so becoming more of an offensive threat. They weren't always that way. Hope Solo said, you'll see an incredible game that most people didn't expect.

CONAN: And the ratings have steadily increased as the U.S. has progressed through the tournament.

GOLDMAN: Yeah.

CONAN: Here's an email. This is from Michael in Tucson: As the father of a young daughter, I'm certainly tuned in to this year's World Cup. Soccer is the most accessible sport for a young woman these days. It has the same excitement and drama as men's soccer and receives almost equal media coverage. I might dispute that. But I was in sport, women soccer, because I support my daughter.

This is from Aaron(ph) in Littleton, Colorado. I attended the Colorado Rapids MLS, that's Major League Soccer game, over the weekend. Then I just happened to turn on the USA versus Brazil match with just about five minutes left in the game before the tying goal was scored. After having a great time at the live game and watching the rest of that amazing comeback, I'm gone from thinking soccer was kind of boring to being totally hooked.

We're talking with NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Michelle(ph) on the line, Michelle with us from Charlotte.

MICHELLE: Hi. I am absolutely 100 percent behind this women's team. You know, I caught coverage of the quarterfinals, started watching at that stage of the tournament and then, now on to the semi-final and then, you know, onward to the final. I played soccer in high school. I'm a big fan of women soccer. But I have to tell you, it has not been - it's been many, many years since I have watched the sport formally on TV. And now, I can't get enough of it. I'm tracking stats. I'm, you know, watching everything I can, every little clip I can of interviews with the players. This team absolutely has me mesmerized. And it's a tribute to their players, to their coach, and it's just been a wonderful thing to get my hands on this summer. Absolutely perfect.

CONAN: Many, many years, Michelle, many, many years since the team of Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain.

MICHELLE: Absolutely, yes. This is the first time I've really even been that interested. And, again, I have to chalk it up to this being an amazing team and an amazing coach. You know, I cannot say enough good things about our coach and her coaching style. I think it really come through in this team. They're very confident and they are able to play with their own style. And you can see that come through. You can see that come through in Megan Rapinoe, in her moves, and Hope Solo. You know, I'm, like, their number one fan now. And I never thought I'd see the day because I follow men's soccer all the time, but I just never been that interested in women's soccer. And, you know, I played the sport. So it says a lot to me about the kind of team they are.

CONAN: Michelle, thanks very much.

MICHELLE: Sure.

CONAN: I expect you'll be parked in front of your TV Sunday afternoon.

MICHELLE: Absolutely.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: All right. Bye-bye.

MICHELLE: Bye.

GOLDMAN: I think Michelle better get in line, though, as far as that number one fan goes. I think there are a growing legion around this country asserting themselves as the number fan, including lots of celebrities who are tweeting all over the place about how this is the greatest team ever.

CONAN: Let's go next to Robert, Robert with us from Florence, South Carolina.

ROBERT: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

ROBERT: Boy, I don't know what to say. I am insane about this situation. I love what they're doing. I've been a youth soccer coach for 15 years, and I'm a big fan. I grew up playing soccer in South America. I came to the States. I love watching the girls play. There are no prima donnas. There are no endorsement stars. There's nothing but heart, grit and sweat and blood and tears, and it makes it just incredibly exciting. Of course, we're rooting for the U.S. And you know what? I think they lack in comparison as far as skills to other teams, but they just have so much heart.

The Japanese - the Japan-Sweden game, I taped it and I'm going to use it next year in my high school coaching to show that you don't have to be the tallest, the fastest, the greatest. You know, you can be little and you can be David against Goliath and regain control of the ball - you know, keep control of the ball and win a game and chip away at a giant. It was exciting. We're throwing a party this weekend at my house, my wife and I and everybody that's a soccer fan while - this coming weekend. And kudos, I love it. I really do.

CONAN: All right. Tom and I will be there, Robert. Thanks very much.

ROBERT: There you go.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Bye-bye.

GOLDMAN: Neal, can I just say one thing?

CONAN: Sure.

GOLDMAN: You know, you hear this outpouring, and we just can't underestimate the power of that moment that you played earlier in this segment, of that moment against Brazil, you know, because the U.S. kind of - I wouldn't say limped into this tournament. They were the top-ranked team in the world and one of the favorites. But they came in, they were the last team to qualify. There wasn't this crazy support leading up to Brazil game. You know, you had soccer fans and people like Robert who play and coach soccer paying attention to them.

But, you know, we've been talking about what separates this team from the great 1999 team, the last team that won the World Cup. And I think that moment against Brazil really helped separate them, you know. In '99, they were playing not just the game of soccer, but they were playing to show that - what women could do at that level, and they showed it very effectively. This team, with that Brazil game and forward with France and so on, has shown just, you know, heart, perseverance, all the things that people are talking about, that coming back from, you know, the last minute.

CONAN: Tom Goldman, thanks very much.

GOLDMAN: You bet.

CONAN: Tom Goldman, sports correspondent for NPR. He joined us from his base in Portland.

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