The United States and China have one of the stronger rivalries in women's soccer. The U.S. National Team beat China to win Olympic gold in 1996 and the World Cup in 1999, both played in the United States. Now, China's top players are back in the USA, competing in this country's first women's professional league: The Women's United Soccer Association. The league includes many foreign players, but more are from China than any other country. Some players are adjusting to living and working far from their native land and culture.
Bai Jie is the Chinese scoring threat for the Washington Freedom. On July 4, America's Independence Day, she helped her team celebrate a big win over the Atlanta Beat. Bai scored the winning goal late in the first half. The native of Hebei was clearly in a good mood and speaking to reporters after the game, wanted to show her relative mastery of the English language.
"This game is very good. Very difficult. Very nice. Is good? I talk wrong…right. Thank you very much," she laughed.
Bai has been with the Freedom since last season, the league's first. She is one of eight members of the Chinese national team who now play in the WUSA. Through an interpreter, she says they came to the United States to improve their skills on the field.
"I like it here. It's more competitive, players are stronger and faster," she said. " It would be a very good chance to improve my skills. "
Her teammate Pu Wei, from Shanghai, has started in all but one game this year.
"Here is more professional. The players are professional," she said. "They take it upon themselves to exercise. Not like in China. In China, leaders, management take care of them."
Sun Wen is a household name in China, where she has played with the national team since 1991. The Shanghai native joined the Atlanta Beat last season.
"Players and teams in China are more technical and skilled. Here in the U.S., players are stronger and more aggressive and more competitive. This is the major difference," she noted.
"Their technical abilities are great, added that's why we brought them in here. Technically they're superior to most players in the world," added Washington Freedom head coach Jim Gabarra. Talking with post-game fireworks blasting in the background, he said the partnership benefits both sides.
"I think what they gain is the physical nature of the game from us."
The Chinese players are adjusting to the American lifestyle. Learning English is an important first step. Coach Gabarra helps by no longer speaking Chinese to Bai and Pu.
"They've both come a little bit aways with their English. We have a translator who makes sure they completely understand everything in the games and some practice," the coach said. "But I'm of the feeling they want to learn English and if you start speaking Chinese, it just make it easier for them. The immersion theory is they've got to learn English as fast as they can. And I think they're doing a great job with it."
Reporter:How did you learn such good English?
Sun Wen: "Just talked with my teammates, studying by computer. That's it. Watching TV."
Of these three players, Sun Wen speaks the best English - good enough to get her driver's license. She now wheels around Atlanta in a car she bought last year. But Sun says trying to express deep feelings is frustrating.
"When you feel sad or lonely, then you can not talk with your teammates because it's hard to share the deep feelings because the language is not perfect to explain what I feel," she explained.
To help Bai Jie and Pu Wei feel more at home, their team has arranged for them to live with a Chinese American family in Northern Virginia. Still, Pu says she misses a common convenience.
"We don't have a car. So to go everywhere we have to ask others to give us a lift. That's the most difficult part in the U.S. of America," she said.
Freedom officials have been driving Pu and Bai around the Chinese community in the Washington area. Freedom general manager Katy Button says they are popular with the fans.
"We had them at the State Department a couple of weeks ago, speaking to a Chinese class for American foreign service officers about to go overseas," explained Ms. Button. " A lot of the high schools have Chinese classes. In that niche market, they're great. It's amazing how the kids have latched onto them. Just because of they way they play and how exciting they are to watch. Two of the most popular players for sure."
The Chinese players will return home when the current WUSA season ends in August. China will host the women's World Cup next year. These women hope their experiences in the United States will help them guide China to its first world title.