Reynolds Rap

Updated: Many Eyes on Women's National Soccer Team

11/08/2010 4:08 PM

Think there will be more than a few of Bristol’s brass checking out the U.S. women’s national team against Costa Rica at 6 p.m. (ET) this evening on ESPN2 or ESPN3.com.

In a stunning upset, the U.S. women’s squad lost to Mexico 2-1 in a World Cup qualifying match in Cancun on Friday Nov. 5. Now, FIFA’s No. 1-ranked team is in jeopardy of not making the tournament next summer in Germany. To qualify, the U.S. must beat Costa Rica  in the third-place CONCACAF match on Nov. 8, then topple Italy in a home-and-home series on Nov. 20 and Nov. 27.

If not, the sports programmer would be on the hook for covering the 16-team tourney from June 26 and July 17, sans the U.S. side.

While the 2011 Women’s World Cup isn’t likely to be anywhere near the ratings magnet that the 2010 men’s tourney became — even if the soccer and cultural gods aligned again like they did in 1999, the tournament is being played in Deutschland — it’s still an important piece of business for ESPN.

Asked by Multichannel News editor in chief Mark Robichaux at the end of OnScreen Media Summit panel last month what was coming up on network, Sean Bratches, executive vice president of sales and marketing at ESPN, replied succinctly: Women’s World Cup.

Moreover, new senior vice president of marketing Carol Cruse talked about wanting to get involved with FIFA’s tourney next summer, during her first interview since accepting the job.

Queried about the importance of U.S. playing well and advancing beyond the Group C stage at last summer’s tournament from South Africa, ESPN officials invariably toed the party and non-jingoistic line, stating that while they hoped the men’s team would perform well, it wouldn’t stop the worldwide leader from covering FIFA’s famed event as the global competition that it is.

If things don’t fall right tonight — and then later this month — ESPN executives would have to encounter a different line of questioning heading into next summer’s event.

Women’s Professional Soccer would also take a major hit if the U.S. team didn’t qualify for WC 2011. Indeed, the distaff domestic circuit that saw its Los Angeles team, featuring Brazilian superstar Marta fold after its rookie season, and had another squad from St. Louis kick it during the middle of its second campaign, now has two other squads teetering on the brink of financial failure. A strong showing in Germany could give WPS some much-needed juice.

WPS’s predecessor, Women’s United Soccer Alliance — borne out of this nation’s defining futbol moment, Brandi Chastain’s jersey-baring, 1999 World Cup triumph — showed that three isn’t always a lucky number when it comes to female futbol.

The cable-centric WUSA, which was championed by John Hendricks and included Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable, Cox Enterprises Inc., Cox Communications Inc., Amos Hostetter’s Pilot House Soccer LLC and the Discovery Communications founder as owner/operators in the single-structure entity, collapsed after its third campaign, right before the 2003 Women’s World Cup kicked off.

Of course in the spirit of what doesn’t kill you on the pitch, can only make you stronger, ESPN could be sitting pretty here. Clearly, the U.S. was supposed to breeze through the CONCACAF qualifying. Now there is interest in something that was only the radar of the most fervid futbol fanatics. Should the ball fall the right way tonight against Costa Rica — the U.S. is 6-0 lifetime against it, including a 4-0 pasting earlier in the qualifying event — Abby Wambach and crew would also be heavily favored against the Italians, ranked 11th by FIFA.

But the U.S — 24-0-1 against No. 22 Mexico, outscoring their neighbors to the south by a 106-9 count, and 21-0-0 in WC qualifying via a combined score of 131-3, before last Friday– was never supposed to be in this position. To paraphrase Chris Berman on “The Blitz,” that’s why they play the matches.

Somehow, if the U.S. doesn’t find the back of the onion bag enough, there could be a lot of tears — and not only from the American players.

(The U.S. took care of business against Costa Rica behind a pair of Wambach goals. Now, it’s on to Italy, against which the Americans hold an 8-4-1 edge, but have been booted all four times they’ve played on The Boot.)

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