Soccer-American hegemony on the line against England

By Simon Evans

By Simon Evans

LYON, France, July 1 (Reuters) - The United States' status as the leading power in women's soccer will be put to the test by England in Tuesday's World Cup semi-final with the gap between the teams having narrowed dramatically in recent years.

The three-times World Cup winners, ranked number one in the world, beat France in their quarter-finals but are set to face an England team full of belief in their chances of glory.

Could this be the game which ends American hegemony in women's football?

The U.S have enjoyed 20 years of dominance which goes back to the World Cup final of 1999, arguably the moment when the women's game truly began take off.

In front of over 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, the game against China went to a penalty shootout and Brandi Chastain struck the winning kick for the Americans.

Chastain collapsed to her knees, removed her top and bedecked in just her sports bra and shorts waved her shirt above her head in celebration.

The match was live on television and the photograph went as viral as any image could in pre-internet times.

Sat in the crowd that day was Rachel Brown, an English student on a University scholarship, playing college soccer for the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Brown, who had begun playing football as a schoolgirl for Accrington Ladies in Lancashire, was already an England international but what she witnessed that day left a lasting impression.

"I was still 18 at the time, it was surreal. It was sat there thinking wow, this is for a women's football game," she told Reuters.

"And then you think, potentially, we could be playing in a game like this. I thought this is the level of international women's football that I want to play at," she added.

England hadn't even qualified for the tournament and their players were struggling to get access to the most basic of facilities -- the American stars were operating on a completely different level.

"Seeing them on the front of Sports Illustrated and every major newspaper, they were genuinely household names," said Brown.

"Everybody knew who they were. They were the people who catapulted that national team into their golden era.

"The Americans were superstars. Fully professional players with million dollar endorsements. As a senior international I looked at them as my peers but we were poles apart," she added.

"I was absolutely desperate for our Football Association (FA) and players to do everything that we could to start to measure up, because we were absolutely miles off," said Brown, whose married name is Brown-Finnis.


CENTRAL CONTRACTS

The FA did eventually respond, increasing its commitment to the women's game, bringing in central contracts for the players and developing a core of professionals who benefited from improved support, a plan which Brown credits for the rise of the Lionesses.

Although she played against that golden generation of Americans throughout her college soccer career, Brown finally got a chance to face them as a team in the 2007 World Cup quarter-final in China -- the only time the sides have met at this level.

England lost that game 3-0, the match serving as another reminder of American dominance, with a tired England side "battered physically", according to Brown.

Whatever the outcome on Tuesday, it is unlikely that Phil Neville's squad will be found wanting in terms of fitness, says Brown, who has been impressed by the way the former Manchester United player has rotated his squad to keep them fresh for the business end of the tournament.

The former Liverpool, Everton and Arsenal keeper is in Lyon working as a pundit with the BBC and while she acknowledges the U.S remain favourites, she has no doubt the gap has closed significantly.

"England have never been in a better, stronger position to beat the U.S.," she says.

"Whatever the outcome on Tuesday that is the case. The fact is that this our best chance to beat the USA."

Throughout those years as top dogs in the sport, the Americans have gained a reputation for a winning mentality based on supreme confidence.

But Brown believes this time, the self-belief of Jill Ellis's team will be a little tempered.

"They will be wary of England, not scared, but they will be wary," she said.

(Reporting by Simon Evans, editing by Ed Osmond)