Soccer: U.S. women's team riding wave of popularity
Soccer • Crowd at Rio Tinto indicative of team's popularity.
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Bridgett Goettlich can barely stop her tears.

The memory in question isn't exactly personal — not the birth of her children, nor the beginning of her 20-year marriage. No, the Montana schoolteacher is playing back HBO's "Dare to Dream," a 2005 documentary about the inception of the U.S. women's national soccer team.

"It makes me cry," Goettlich says, her voice cracking. "[For] my parents, my mother, there weren't even sports in high school."

The 40-year-old has followed the U.S. women's national team since she was a collegiate athlete in 1988, three years before the first Women's World Cup. Her presence at Sunday's friendly against Canada — one that required a nine-hour drive from Laurel, Mont., to Salt Lake City — wasn't just a vacation. It was an obligation.

With summer break in full swing, Goettlich and her two soccer-playing teenage daughters had marked their calendar for weeks. There was no excuse not to be among the athlete's final send-off party before the London Olympics — the pursuit of their fourth gold medal fueled by the image of 16,805 cheering fans.

For the sport's diehards, there is no parallel for World Cup success — something that has eluded the U.S. women since Brandi Chastain tore off her jersey in 1999. And despite sitting atop FIFA rankings since 2008, the national team finished third and second in the past two World Cups — surrendering a pair of late leads to Japan a year ago.

The Olympics, however, may be just as central to the popularity of women's soccer in America.

If the crowd at Rio Tinto this weekend was an accurate indication, even those who cared little for soccer will soon be tuning in. There were young women unaware of the team's loss to Japan, frat brothers with painted chests, pimply teen boys wrapped in American flags. Most cared little for past failures; their eyes were turned to the future.

"The Olympics, that's the capper," Goettlich says. "It may not be that way in the soccer community, but that's what I think."

For the players, a gold medal can't heal the scars left by last year's loss. Still, much of the focus isn't inward.

"Our fans deserve something really cool to cheer about," says forward Abby Wambach. "Bringing home a gold medal is probably the best gift we can give back to our fans."

Women's professional soccer has never grabbed even a light hold of the American consciousness. Fledging pro leagues have come and gone, the latest top-tier iteration folding when Women's Professional Soccer closed its doors in May after three seasons. The Olympics, perhaps even more so than the World Cup, offers the potential for change.

There are those who will always love this team unconditionally: the 7-year-old with the hand-painted GO U.S.A. T-shirt; the teenage girl who unleashes loud, unapologetic burps; the middle-aged woman who still tears up at the thought of a seven-year-old documentary.

If something dramatic happens this summer, others could join them. At least, that's what the U.S. women hope — that the thousands who showed up for them this weekend will do so again, that a groundswell can and will rise.

"We're at a place now higher than I've ever been in terms of popularity," says midfielder Megan Rapinoe. "Hopefully, we can just go on up." —

U.S. Women's Olympic schedule

P July 25 • U.S. vs. France, 10 a.m., Hampden Park in Glasgow, Scotland

July 28 • U.S. vs. Colombia, 10 a.m., Hampden Park in Glasgow, Scotland

July 31 • U.S. vs. Korea DPR, 10:15 a.m., Old Trafford in Manchester, England