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Stars shine for youths

Soccer gold medal led to higher profile

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Seeing young girls dangle jerseys, soccer balls and posters over railings is an all-too familiar sight for U.S. National Team player Brandi Chastain. Amazingly, after signing an estimated "hundreds of thousands" of autographs, she never gets tired of it.

"This is the easy part," she said this week while scribbling her signature on countless Chastain No. 6 jerseys after a training session with the national team at the University of Utah.

The U.S. takes on Ireland in an exhibition match at Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday night. It's the first-ever visit to Utah by a men's or a women's national team, and in many ways it's long overdue.

Utah leads the nation in per capita youth soccer participation with 19 percent, according to Utah Youth Soccer Association president Paul Burke. Many of those young players were among the thousand fans who surrounded Ute Field for the second straight day to catch a glimpse of a national team practice.

Burke estimates that 53,000 Utah kids are registered with a youth soccer organization. He calculates that 35,000 are a part of UYSA, 8,000 participate in Jr. Blitzz, 5,000 in the AYSO and 5,000 more in various city and county leagues.

"Soccer is the No. 1 sport in America for the youth," said U.S. co-captain Joy Fawcett. "When they come out and support us, they make the national team happen."

It's hard to imagine based on today's popularity — after all there are Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain Barbies — but there was once a time when the women's national team wasn't even a blip on the sports' radar. Did you know that eight years before Chastain ripped off her jersey in celebration after the United States won the World Cup in 1999, she celebrated a World Cup championship in 1991?

Despite dominating the sport for nearly a decade, it wasn't until the U.S. women won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics that the public became aware of their existence.

"The Olympics are huge for America. When you win an Olympic medal, that's everything for an American, unlike other countries where it's the World Cup," said Fawcett. "It was a good kickoff with us winning it there in (Atlanta), and that started the visibility and it continued to snowball with the World Cup."

Amazingly, the explosion of popularity occurred despite not one game being televised by NBC.

In many ways, the sport's popularity was at an all-time high. For players like Fawcett, Chastain, Hamm, Julie Foudy and Kristine Lilly, who all played in the inaugural World Cup in 1991, they couldn't envision their sport becoming any more popular.

They underestimated the power of the pony-tailed hooligans.

When the United States hosted the Women's World Cup in 1999, the Americans played in front of sell-out crowds at Soldier Field, Giants Stadium and the Rose Bowl. The combined attendance for that World Cup was more than 600,000 fans, shattering everyone's expectations.

"In 1999, that was just the exclamation point," said Chastain. "I didn't anticipate the explosion. I think the media really did a great job of putting the game out there."

After her championship-clinching penalty kick, Chastain became a cultural icon. Letterman, Leno and Wheaties all came calling.

Four years later, the United States is preparing to host another World Cup, and the foundation has been laid for grander things.

Eighteen-year-old Heather O'Reilly only hopes she's a part of it. The Long Island product is the youngest of the 23 players coach April Heinrichs invited to Salt Lake City this week. Like most of America, she erupted with joy when Chastain buried that penalty.

"I remember sitting in my living room with my family watching the World Cup in 1999," said O'Reilly. "I was a real naive 14-year-old, just like these girls here. When Brandi kicked in that kick, I knew from that moment I was going to do whatever I could to be out there one day as well."

Surprisingly, it only took her two more years to get there.

She's one of the brightest prospects on the national team, and she owes much of her possibility to her idols' groundwork.

"Take Heather O'Reilly for example," said Chastain. "In her lifetime she will have the opportunity to play with the under-16 national team, the under-17 national team, the under-19 national team and with the full national team. That's something we never had. We had the full national team or nothing."

The spirit of the numerous national teams lives right here in Utah. Taylorsville High product Stephanie Ebner was a member of the under-19 national team that recently won the world championship. Timpview High product Jessica Harmon has been a regular fixture with the under-16 national team.

One day one of these players, or possibly one of the autograph-seeking teenagers hanging over the railing Wednesday, will realize a dream by becoming the first Utahn to make an appearance with the U.S. Women's National Team.

It's well worth it, just ask O'Reilly.

"As a youth player you grew up watching these players. This is the highest level of women's soccer in the world," said O'Reilly. "To be playing for your country in a World Cup year, this is the most exciting thing in my life so far."

E-mail: jedward@desnews.com