FRANKFURT, Germany — A week ago, there were so few people following the Americans they could hold their daily media sessions around a small table in their hotel lobby.
Now they need an entire ballroom.
The frenzy of attention surrounding the U.S. women ahead of Sunday’s final against Japan is something they’ve never experienced before, and it has the potential to fire them up — or heap even more pressure on what is already the biggest game of their careers.
“I don’t think it’s a distraction,” goalkeeper Hope Solo said. “We’ve had the mentality from day one that we came here for one reason. Our one and only goal was to win this tournament, and I think people are staying pretty true to that.”
But the challenge gets bigger with each day.
The Americans are used to playing in relative anonymity. Oh, Abby Wambach gets the David Beckham treatment when she goes home to Rochester, N.Y., and Solo has a long had a lengthy list of admirers. For the most part, though, only the most diehard soccer fans could have told you before the World Cup began what position Megan Rapinoe plays (midfield) or what color headband Alex Morgan always wears (pink).
Then, with one thunderous header by Wambach, the Americans went Hollywood.
Fans back home are captivated by the team’s grit and perseverance, and charmed by the players’ personalities. And in typical American fashion, when the country gets behind a team, it goes all in. Hollywood celebrities and pro athletes are leading the bandwagon, and the U.S. games are now must-see TV. Even a little thing like work couldn’t keep fans away, with Wednesday’s semifinal against France — played during the middle of the day back home — drawing the fourth-highest rating of any Women’s World Cup game.
About 100 journalists from all corners of the world turned out for the team’s availability Friday, asking about everything from the first time Wambach headed a ball to Heather O’Reilly’s plans for her Oct. 1 wedding. No sooner had the media crush ended than the White House announced that Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, Jill, and Chelsea Clinton are coming for Sunday’s final.
“It’s just amazing that this team has been able to capture the heart of America, because normally we can’t do that,” Rapinoe said. “That’s just been an amazing feeling. We’re just taking it all in. We don’t get it that much, so we’re living it up and trying to keep it rolling.”
To do that, though, the Americans have to stay focused on their original goal: winning the World Cup title. This is the Americans’ first trip to the finals since 1999, the last time they won soccer’s biggest prize.
Win, and they’ll be crossover hits like Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain. Come up short, and all that buzz they’ve been hearing will fade to silence.
“We want all those things that have happened within the last ... few days to be worth it and to be meaningful,” Wambach said. “And the only way we can do that is to secure a win on Sunday.”
On paper, at least, the Americans are heavy favorites — and, yes, there is a betting line on this game.
The U.S. is a two-time World Cup champion, defending Olympic gold medalist and the world’s top-ranked team. Japan has never made the final in any major tournament, and has yet to beat the Americans in 25 tries. The U.S. has a nine-game winning streak going in the series, including a pair of 2-0 victories in warm-up matches a few weeks before the teams left for the World Cup.
But this isn’t the same Japanese team the Americans played in May, and they know it.
Japan stunned Germany, the two-time defending champ, in the quarterfinals, and then made easy work of Sweden, winning 3-1. The Nadeshiko have wonderful ball control and can hold possession for what seems like hours, and they’ve shown a nice scoring touch in Germany, too.
The Japanese are also playing for a greater purpose, hoping their success will provide some relief for a nation still recovering from the devastation of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
“They’re playing for something bigger and better than the game,” Solo said. “When you’re playing with so much emotion and so much heart, that’s hard to play against.”
But emotion can overwhelm, too.
“This life, it’s about competition. There’s a lot of pressure and a lot of stress, and of course the players feel the same thing,” U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said.
Then, a smile playing across her face, the coach who is famous for her unshakable calmness and positive attitude said, “I just tell them, ’Slow down, you move too fast.”’
As reporters laughed, Sundhage sang Simon and Garfunkel’s classic, “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” — the lyrics never more appropriate.
“Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy.”