World Cup Watch

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Phew. The United States has made it through the "Group of Death" at the Women’s World Cup from China. FIFA’s No. 1-ranked team, which hasn’t lost in 50 matches, had to hold on for dear life against Africa’s best side, Nigeria, for a 1-0 victory that put it on top of Group B.

Coupled with No. 5 North Korea’s 2-1 loss to No. 3 Sweden, the U.S. avoided Group A winner, defending World Cup champion Germany and big bad Birgit Prinz, who passed Michelle Akers as the competition’s all-time goal scorer, in the quarterfinals. Instead of the Germans, which dismantled Argentina 11-0 in the Group A opener, the U.S. faces Kelly Smith — the U.S.-trained striker with the boot-kissing celebration—and England on Sept 22 at 7:55 on ESPN.

It certainly wasn’t easy, though, Lori Chalupny scored in the first minute off a deflection from a throw-in. But the win wasn’t secured until goalkeeper Hope Solo, who looked hopeless in muffing a long shot that enabled North Korea, which outplayed the U.S.,  to score its first goal in that nation’s 2-2 tie with the stars and stripes in the Group B, became Hans Solo in the second half.. Solo turned a right-flank blast aside in the final minute of stoppage time—not to mention a header from Rita Chikwelu in the 85th minute and played an angle versus a strike from the dangerous Perpetua Nkwocha that just went wide in the 75th minute.

The win over Nigeria was not only a boon for U.S. hopes to capture its third of the five Women’s World Cups, but for Women’s Soccer LLC, which is scheduled to become the successor to the cable-centric Women’s United Soccer Association, in 2009.

In an interview before the 2007 World Cup, ESPN director of programming and acquisitions Doug Loughrey said it would really help the fledgling women’s league to at least make the semifinals of the 2007 World Cup. He noted that the total sports network, which has really upped its commitment to futbol, has interest in the distaff league for a limited telecast schedule.

In previous conversations, Fox Soccer Channel executive vice president and general manager David Sternberg has said his network has a number of conversations with Women’s Soccer LLC commissioner Tonya Antonucci and her group.

Similarly, Setanta Sports Holdings joint CEO Leonard Ryan also told me that if there’s domestic interest in a revitalized women’s pro league, his company would review it as well.

Women’s Soccer LLC was originally looking to kick off its eight-team circuit next year, but deferred in the face of the Beijing Olympics. Instead, it’s targeting the following spring for its launch. Of course, should the U.S. fail in China this time around, it could rally again in Beijing, just as the side did in taking the gold at the Athens Games in 2004 after losing 3-0 in the 2003 World Cup semifinals to Germany.

That loss to Prinz and company came just weeks after WUSA, forged in the wake of the euphoria of the women’s team 1999 World Cup victory and Discovery founder John Hendricks passion for the sport, closed down after completing its third season.

In December 2004, Women’s Soccer Initiative Inc. announced its intention to relaunch women’s professional soccer in the U.S., led by CEO Antonucci, the executive formerly in charge of Yahoo! Sports. Antonucci, in an interview earlier this year, said Hendricks would have his hand in what is now being called Women’s Soccer LLC.

Now, if the U.S. can only get past England on Saturday the league would appear to be on stronger footing.

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