By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

A year after the U.S. women's national soccer team became a cultural icon in front of crowds numbering more than 50,000, a lot has happened. New head coach, new professional league, new deal with U.S. Soccer.

But when the team goes to tournaments, especially in the United States, it still has that ineffable quality that draws fans to far-off places like Hershey, Pa., where Team USA played Trinidad & Tobago in the opening round of the inaugural CONCACAF Gold Cup, held in June and July 2000. The tournament featured eight teams from North and Central America and the Carribean, along with a couple of wild-card entries.

Even though there was going to be little drama in the Americans' opening contest, and little in the way of consequence in terms of the overall victor (Team USA's main goal for 2000 being the Olympics), there were still 10,000 fans who wanted to see their All-American heroines.

Just after the start of the second half of a desultory 8-0 win by Brazil over Costa Rica in the first game of the Hershey doubleheader, the entire northern side of the west grandstand stood as one and began applauding. Team USA came off its bus and went into the locker room tunnel to the adulation of the fans.

This was before the game. It was even before the warmups. The Costa Rica-Brazil game became an afterthought: "They're here! They're actually here!''

There were more ovations as the team took the field for pre-game drills. As the Americans ran a small-games drill and warmed up the goalkeepers on the south end of the field, hundreds of young, mainly female fans lined the railings surrounding that half of Hersheypark Stadium. The all-male security team, perhaps not realizing the immense star power of these American women, had to come up with more and more creative ways of shooing away the pig-tailed hooligans.

Once the game started, it was a sports love-in. Everyone in the stands had a favorite or two, some of whose names were emblazoned on their backs. A majority of the jersey-wearers sported one of numerous styles of Mia Hamm replica jerseys. There were a number of would-be Brandi Chastains in the gallery, too.

But one pair of young women, who is following the team throughout the first round from Hershey to Louisville, Ky., brought a couple of jerseys each to wear: Kate Sobrero, Tisha Venturini, Sara Whalen, Danielle Fotopolous. The teenagers, Virginians Sarah Streyle and Sonya Montoya, changed jerseys a couple of times during the contest; they also had their faces painted and carried about a dozen handmade placards.

Both screamed their approval at every positive play the Americans made. "Go Sobieeeeee!" Streyle screeched as Sobrero made another tackle of a Trinidad & Tobago forward, using a diminutive of the players' names, just as if they were team members on the bench.

The U.S. bench, especially in the second half, received cheers and chants even when they were not playing. Lorrie Fair, who had a pair of goals in the 11-0 pasting of Trinidad & Tobago, turned and waved while receiving an ice bag on her leg. More player names were cheered until the adulation was acknowledged.

With about 20 minutes to go, and after the women's national team had absorbed enough adulation for the entire state of Pennsylvania (if not the whole Northeast), it was time for the team to give a little love. Julie Foudy and Carla Overbeck took a paper tube and started unrolling a piece of posterboard stored inside it.

The autographed banner read, "Happy 40th Inkster, You Old Bag."

The LPGA golfer Juli Inkster came out of the stands and accepted the banner, saying, "You guys have too much time on your hands."

Inkster, competing at the LPGA Championship some three hours away in Wilmington, Del., had befriended the team over the course of several golf outings and were sharing a moment of solidarity as icons of the modern women's sports revolution.

Perhaps it is the women's national soccer team's willingness to give love as well as accept it that will be its legacy. There have been other times when members of the team have shown up, out of nowhere, to conduct an impromptu clinic or give their time to promote the growth of women's soccer in this country.

As if it could get any bigger.

Apparently, the U.S. women's gesture provided inspiration to Inkster; she would win the LPGA Championship two days later in a playoff. That afternoon, the Americans took their act to Louisville and blasted Costa Rica 8-0 in Gold Cup pool play. Streyle and Montoya were in attendance.