APTOPIX France England US WWCup Soccer

England’s Steph Houghton (right) grimaces Tuesday after missing a penalty shot as Alex Morgan celebrates during the Women’s World Cup semifinal.

Twenty-eight years isn’t that long in the context of sports history.

Four of the great baseball franchises of the 1970s and/or ’80s — the Reds, Pirates, Orioles and Athletics — haven’t won a league pennant in the past 28 years, much less a World Series championship. Sports teams, leagues and competitions can remain static. The have-nots can stay that way a lot longer than just 28 years.

So consider the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup, staged 28 years ago. Or perhaps, given that the Mars candy company spent good money to sponsor it and an apparent moron spent time and energy naming it, we should call it by its official appellation: the 1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup.

Rolls off the tongue, not off the hand.

This global “spectacle” featured a whopping 12 teams, because there weren’t enough competitive women’s teams to have more.

The matches lasted only 80 minutes, because organizers weren’t sure women could hang for the full 90 like the men.

It was held in China, and attendance was announced in round numbers (11,000, 12,000, etc.) because that’s what you do when you’re artificially inflating attendance.

The U.S. won that Women’s World Cup, because of course we did. We were decades ahead of most nations when it came to embracing women’s athletics. Title IX had been enacted in 1972, ensuring scholarship opportunities for deserving U.S. women. Reckon Brazil, where soccer is king, had anything like Title IX?

The Americans won all six of their matches in 1991 by a 25-5 aggregate. Japan, which would upset the U.S. in the Women’s World Cup final two decades later, went 0-3 in the Group Stage in 1991, getting outscored 12-0.

The 28 years since have featured quite the evolution. Yet here we still stand, poised to win again.

On Sunday, the U.S. aims for its fourth Women’s World Cup title when it plays the Netherlands at 11 a.m. at Parc Olympique Lyonnais in France. A championship in 2019 would be a greater achievement than the one four years ago, or even the memorable one on home soil in 1999. It’s certainly more impressive than the one in the 1991 1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup.

Why? Because globally, women’s soccer has never been better. Major clubs in Europe have devoted resources to their women’s programs, creating arms races and incentives. Coaching has improved. The players have become more athletic and technical. The nations have become more progressive.

The best news for women’s soccer is that the U.S. has had to work hard to get this far, at least once the knockout stage began. France was feisty in a 2-1 loss on home soil in the quarterfinals — a sold-out affair where the average ticket price on StubHub was reportedly between $2,000 and $3,000.

England, where women’s soccer was once viewed as an unsavory pastime, had multiple late chances to equalize in the semifinals before falling 2-1 to the U.S.

Not all evolutions are positive. Replay, the great killjoy of sports, has burrowed its way into soccer, robbing matches of pace and in-the-moment exultation. Every watch party around the country Sunday — including the one scheduled for Salem’s Kiwanis Field staged by the VBR Star Soccer Club — would be wise to hold all goal celebrations until we are certain the referee won’t be making that stupid square signal with his or her fingers.

But everything else is better.

At 1-to-3 odds, the Americans are the biggest favorite Sunday that they’ve been since facing Chile in the second match of the Group Stage. That match had a 1991 feel to it, with the U.S. breezing to a 3-0 win. The women’s game still has plenty of room to grow, to get deeper, to expand.

Maybe in another 28 years, the Women’s World Cup will have 48 countries participating just like the men. But for now, the U.S. has a shot to prove it is once again the best of the 24. That’s a feat that’s more difficult — and more glorious — than it’s ever been.

Aaron McFarling joined The Roanoke Times in 2000 and has been writing sports columns since 2004.

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