ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The one-month countdown starts today for soccer fans. On June 7, the Women's World Cup opens in France. The U.S. is favored to defend its title from the last tournament in 2015. If the women do win, it would be their fourth World Cup championship. They have never finished lower than third since the women's tournament began in 1991. As NPR's Tom Goldman reports, that success is in sharp contrast to the U.S. men's team, which struggles internationally.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: The last time the U.S. women's national team played - a month ago, in Los Angeles - the Americans thumped Belgium 6-0. The lopsided win thrilled the nearly 21,000 fans who packed the stadium almost as much as the halftime show did.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Please stand up, get loud and welcome to the field the 1999 women’s World Cup champions.
GOLDMAN: That seminal championship clinched 20 years ago turned Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Briana Scurry and the rest of the '99ers into soccer folk heroes and women's sports icons. Their halftime appearance also was a reminder of the current group's pedigree. Then, now - soccer greatness everywhere. Standing on the stadium concourse wearing an American flag onesie, Chelsea Holmes drank it all in with her nephew Mason.
CHELSEA HOLMES: And so I was telling him - he's 10 - that when I was 10, they won the 1999 one and wanted to show him that, you know, girls can do it just as much, if not better.
GOLDMAN: At the highest level of national team competition, the women have done it better. Three World Cup and four Olympic titles - none for the men. The current separation is stark. The U.S. women won the World Cup four years ago and are the betting favorites to repeat. The U.S. failed to qualify for last year's men's tournament. Why is this? If success inspires success, the women have a distinct advantage. For soccer-playing boys rising through the ranks, the closest thing to a rallying cry is the 2002 men's team run to the World Cup quarterfinals. When U.S. midfielder Allie Long was coming up, she had a choice of champions - the 1991 U.S. team that won the first women's World Cup and the '99ers.
ALLIE LONG: What they achieved - I think that feeling that you got watching that World Cup is like what we all dream of feeling - that moment of the ball going in. And you're a champion of the world and seeing how the world just, like, lit up.
GOLDMAN: Internal team workings may be another plus for the women, says Long's teammate Crystal Dunn.
CRYSTAL DUNN: The key to our success is our culture. So maybe for them, it's just establishing and repeatedly going out every single day with that chip on the shoulder and just knowing who you are as a unit.
GOLDMAN: Taylor Twellman was part of the men's national team culture from 2002 to 2008. Twellman is ESPN's lead soccer analyst. He says the U.S. men are as passionate and committed as the women when it comes to the ultimate goal.
TAYLOR TWELLMAN: I would have given anything to win a World Cup.
GOLDMAN: But the women and men, he says, have played in different soccer worlds. Spurred by Title IX, U.S. women found their footing in footy while women in traditional soccer countries couldn't play.
TWELLMAN: The women are light-years ahead of men because they were the leaders of the world while the men have been trying to catch up with the rest of the world.
GOLDMAN: The U.S. women still are leaders of their world. They're ranked No. 1. But challengers are closing the gap.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Staniforth scores for England.
GOLDMAN: In March, England won the SheBelieves Cup, finishing ahead of the U.S., as well as highly ranked Japan and Brazil. The world is catching up to the U.S. women, and head coach Jill Ellis likes it. Iron sharpens iron, she was quoted recently as saying. She picked a World Cup roster heavy on experience, knowing that will be important in tough, tight matches. The Americans begin their World Cup defense in France on June 11.
Tom Goldman, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEW ORDER SONG, "WORLD IN MOTION (THE B-SIDE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.