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U.S. women's team has sights on '99 Cup

An Olympic gold medal. A World Cup trophy. For most teams, either of these accomplishments would translate into name recognition and national respect.

But the U.S. women's national soccer team, which has won both honors, still plays in virtual anonymity.

"Every time we play in the States, it's important that we play well and recruit fans now for women's World Cup '99," U.S. national team midfielder Kristine Lilly said. "Once fans see us play, they'll come back _ and that's been proven before."

When the U.S. national team won a gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, it played before the largest crowd _ 76,489 _ to witness a women's sporting event. And still, two years later, as women's World Cup '99, which will be hosted by the United States, approaches, the team feels the need to sell the game.

And the hard sell is on. The team will play host to Argentina today. The game will be the second of two against Argentina. The United States, behind Tiffeny Milbrett's three goals, won 8-1 Friday night at Fullerton, Calif. The series marks the first time in 1998 that the national team has played in the United States and it will kick off the campaign for U.S. Soccer's women's World Cup '99. Women's World Cup '99 will be played June 19-July 10 at eight sites across the United States.

While the game in an exhibition, known in soccer terms as a friendly, it will be anything but. Coach Tony DiCicco is already appraising players in anticipation of cutting his roster from between 35 and 40 to the 24 who will be invited to a residential camp in Orlando in January. The World Cup roster is expected to be between 18 and 20 players, but FIFA has not yet determined the number.

"It's called a friendly, but no disrespect to Argentina, we can't play a friendly game," DiCicco said. "We know that people will be coming out after us. It's not a win-at-all-costs kind of game, but we've got to look at a lot of different players."

That said, DiCicco already has the core of his team _ seven players who were on the Olympic and 1991 World Cup teams _ set. Lilly is among the players who, barring injury, are a lock to make the World Cup team. Lilly has 147 national team appearances, the most of any player _ man or woman _ in U.S. soccer history.

Women's gymnastics, basketball and softball caught the limelight at the Atlanta Olympics and women's basketball broke into the professional ranks in 1996 and 1997 when the American Basketball League and the Women's NBA began play. But a proposed women's professional soccer league, the National Soccer Alliance, lost its funding and was forced to postpone its start-up.

And that makes the matches against Argentina all the more important. "We want to launch our homestand properly, we want to launch our preparation for 1999 in this country properly," DiCicco said. "And we want to continue to grow as a team."

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