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Metamorphosis On The Pitch: Americans Make Changes To Inch Closer To World Cup

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Let's step into the way-back machine, set it for the 1999 Women's World Cup final. The U.S. plays China to a scoreless draw. It's down to a penalty kick shootout. China misses a crucial shot. USA has the advantage as their final shooter, Brandi Chastain, lines up her shot.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1999 WOMEN'S WORLD CUP FINAL)

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: Goal.

RATH: The U.S. wins, but that was 16 years ago. Tomorrow, they'll get another shot, this time against familiar rival, Japan. Jere Longman of The New York Times is in Vancouver right now, covering the Women's World Cup. He says female athletes have come a long way since Congress passed Title IX in 1972, ending gender-based discrimination in schools. And while Title IX opened up the paying field for women, the first professional women soccer teams did not have it easy.

JERE LONGMAN: So when the United States first formed a women's team in the 1980s, you know, they made their own uniforms. And I think for the 1991 World Cup, they played a qualifying tournament in Haiti where, you know, there was little electricity in the hotels. They had to bathe in the hotel pool. So now, they're, you know, traveling by charter, staying in the finest hotels, drawing millions of viewers on television. You know, there was a real awakening in the United States about 1996, at the Atlanta Olympics, which was the first women's soccer tournament. United States won gold medal in soccer, basketball and softball. So there was, I think, a real sort of moment of arrival of women's team sports in the United States.

RATH: Even though the U.S. team has reached the finals, you write that you think that the U.S. women are at a disadvantage in 2015 compared to other countries when it comes to getting the players trained at a young age. Could you explain what you're talking about?

LONGMAN: There is a concern expressed by April Heinrichs, who was a star on the 1991 World Cup champion team - the first time, you know, the U.S. won the World Cup in the inaugural World Cup. And she has several concerns, one of which seems a bit counterintuitive. The girls of her generation and through Mia Hamm's generation grew up playing against boys, but Title IX has been applied so effectively that girls don't play against boys much anymore because they have their own leagues, and while - in Europe, girls and young women play against boys. And in Europe, you know, a number of star soccer players turn professional by the time they're 14 or 15.

So the concern is that, you know, that the rest of the world has caught up and that the United States needs to sort of have girls playing against boys more often and also playing up in age, so, you know, a 12-year-old playing with fifteen-year-olds. You know, they're challenged by bigger, stronger athletes.

RATH: So let's talk about the game tomorrow. This is wild. The U.S. is going to be playing Japan. This will be the third time they've met Japan in an international final in recent years. Talk a little bit about the psychological game the U.S. needs to bring tomorrow.

LONGMAN: Yeah, so this will be the third time that the United States and Japan have played in a major championship in four years. Japan won the 2011 Women's World Cup on penalty kicks, twice coming from a goal down. And in 2012, the United States defeated Japan 2-1 to win the Olympic gold medal. And some people argue that the best team did not win either game.

So at this point, the United States has improved throughout the tournament. They are a very confident team now. You know, the question will be can they contend with Japan's possession-style soccer? And Japan has had a tremendous ability in this tournament to score in the last few minutes, you know, and that's what happened in 2011.

So the United States - the United States defense has not surrendered a goal since the first match of the tournament, but they will have to be alert until the final second of the match on Sunday, because Japan has repeatedly scored in the last few minutes.

RATH: Jere Longman is a New York Times reporter and wrote "The Girls Of Summer," a book about the U.S. women's soccer team winning the World Cup in 1999. Jere, it's been a pleasure. Thank you.

LONGMAN: Oh, thank you for having me. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.