With the recent success of the U.S. men's and women's national teams, as well as imported stars like England's David Beckham and France's Thierry Henry joining Major League Soccer, the sport has reached new heights in America. But Women's Professional Soccer is still struggling to capture a prominent audience. The league is hoping two of the best female soccer players in the world will generate some much-needed buzz around the sport.
For many Americans, women's soccer remains Brandi Chastain's bra-baring celebration after her penalty kick against China gave the host USA the 1999 World Cup title, more than a decade ago. Mia Hamm is still the face of the U.S. women's team, despite retiring from competition in 2004.
For a sport so popular with the nation's youth, female soccer in the United States has failed to reach a mainstream audience.
But the Women's Professional Soccer league hopes young, talented players will elevate the sport to new levels of popularity. Hamm, whose silhouette is featured in the league's logo, is confident that the WPS will provide the sport an opportunity to take off.
"I am excited about the future of the game on the woman's side, but getting them that greater exposure and more experience is important," Hamm said.
The fledgling league has struggled to establish itself in the midst of a national recession. The WPS is down from nine teams in its 2009 inaugural season to just seven one year later. Clubs in Los Angeles and St. Louis collapsed earlier this year due to a lack of sponsorship and financial setbacks, proving that not even professional sports are exempt from the economic crisis.
"You know to be honest with you, we are all praying that the economy rebounds. I mean, everyone has had to kind of change their approach. And it is not just about this year, it is about the next four or five years," Hamm acknowledges that recession has played a part.
Talent-wise, the next four or five years look very promising for the Women's Professional Soccer league. With respect to Mia Hamm, the league has never had a player as dominant as Brazil's Marta Vieira da Silva.
The striker, who goes simply by Marta, has won an unprecedented four consecutive FIFA World Player of the Year awards, and she is only 24 years old. The Brazilian leads the league in goals for the second straight year and her club, FC Gold Pride, based in suburban San Francisco, is well ahead of any other team in the standings.
Last Saturday, her team defeated the host Washington Freedom 4-1 before nearly 5,000 fans in suburban Washington. Marta scored twice for the visiting side.
The Freedom features the best active American player, Abby Wambach. The 30-year-old striker suggests that Saturday's game linked female soccer greats, past and present. With Mia Hamm in attendance on the sideline, Wambach said the game was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for fans.
"Not too often do you get Mia, myself and Marta on the same field," Wambach said. "So I am thrilled that Mia was committed to coming here, I know that she has got a lot of things going on in her life so it is amazing that she wants to keep coming back and giving back to this game."
Hamm, on the other hand, considers herself just lucky to be involved with such a talented group of female players.
"I' am so thrilled to watch two of the best players in the world compete against each other," Hamm said. And you know, they are two players that continuously push their technical edge every time they step on the field. As a fan of the game, I appreciate that."
The WPS is hoping that American fans will appreciate that more and more as well.