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Soccer greats show love of game

The 17th annual Women’s Friendship soccer tournament was held over the weekend on 15 old, patchy brown fields across from Sam Boyd Stadium. Over two weeks, 165 teams will have shown up from across the country, meaning as many as 2,400 players in age groups ranging from 30-and-over to 52-and-over fastened the shin guards and went at it.

You can directly trace such extraordinary participation to one team, one game, one moment, when a certain sports bra was revealed and from it spawned a cultural revolution, forever altering the perception of women and sport.

This is why one of those dated fields was lined with hundreds of people at different times Saturday and Sunday, competitors and fans armed with cameras and jerseys and Sharpie pens and an unending sense of gratitude for two players from the Southern California-based team MSG.

Imagine if Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson showed up to play in your weekend basketball game unannounced. Just walked in, warmed up and took part for nothing more than the joy of competing. For those who played soccer against Joy Fawcett and Shannon MacMillan the past few days, it was that kind of elation. That inspiring. That unforgettable.

Soccer will never take in this country like it has in others. It’s a niche sport then, now, always. It’s something we play but don’t watch. But one remarkable team managed to break through into an amazing level of mainstream consciousness in 1999.

The U.S. women beat China on penalty kicks in a World Cup final before more than 90,000 at the Rose Bowl and a television audience of more than 40 million, the most watched U.S. soccer game in history. MacMillan. Fawcett. Mia Hamm. Brandi Chastain. Julie Foudy. They were among the central faces of American soccer for more than a decade, elevating the sport to a point it likely will never realize again.

But as much as that World Cup victory — culminating with Chastain’s celebration of ripping off her jersey to reveal a sports bra — caused young girls to join team sports in record numbers across America, it also empowered women who never benefited from Title IX and all its high school and club opportunities to discover their athletic side.

To accept that it’s OK for women to sweat.

“We knew there had been an impact on kids, but it takes something like this tournament to realize the impact we had on adults,” said the recently retired MacMillan. “We wanted women to know it was OK to be powerful and strong and athletic and fit and healthy and confident. I come out here and see a 52-and-older division and am amazed. To me, that’s unbelievable.”

Hamm always held iconic status with fans, but as special a player as she was, far more adult women looked upon Fawcett as their inspiration. She is not only the finest defender in history, but her ability to come back and play at the national level after giving birth three times perpetually changed views about athleticism and pregnancy.

She gave a whole new meaning to the term “soccer mom.”

“It meant a lot to hear other moms tell me that they looked up to me and had started playing or just running because of what I had done,” said Fawcett, who at 39 is fitter than most people half her age. “But I also didn’t feel any pressure to get back each time other than to play the game I love so much.”

It’s a major reason why they both competed here. It’s like coming full-circle, returning to a recreational level they once knew only as children. MacMillan is 32 and said this is the first time in 15 to 20 years she truly played for merely the fun of it. Others drew more enjoyment just being around them.

Opposing players actually introduced themselves and offered handshakes during matches. They took their beating — MacMillan and Fawcett’s team won its 30-and-over division by outscoring seven opponents 38-0 — and then lined up for pictures and autographs.

Out there on those old, patchy brown fields across from Sam Boyd Stadium. Like Jordan and Magic showing up for some weekend pickup.

“These two women are ones for our generation, inspiring us in the way we could consider ourselves athletes and not just chicks or soccer moms, that we can compete and be strong,” said Mary Kraszewski minutes after her team lost to MSG, 7-0. “It’s a lifetime dream to be on the same field with them, something I’ll never forget. That’s why we’re taking all these pictures. My kids are going to be so jealous.

“You don’t have a Sharpie on you, do you?”

Ed Graney can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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