A lot on the line in Women's World Cup final

There is more at stake than mere global soccer supremacy when the U.S. and Japan meet in the Women's World Cup final Sunday.

For a generation of U.S. players, led by star forward Abby Wambach, the game will provide one last chance at a title that has eluded the Americans for 16 years.

For troubled goalkeeper Hope Solo, it will provide another opportunity for redemption following a year in which she has been in the news more for her legal problems than for her ability to prevent goals.

And for U.S. Soccer, a win would avenge a heartbreaking loss in the last World Cup final, when Japan twice rallied — once in regulation and once in overtime — before winning on penalty kicks.

Yet no matter the outcome of today's final, the big winner figures to be the sport. Once written off as a boring diversion for immigrants and young children, soccer is now drawing passionate interest across the U.S.

Tens of thousands of Americans — many dressed in the Stars and Stripes — flocked to Brazil for last summer's men's World Cup, buying more than 200,000 tickets. Only the host country bought more.

And those who couldn't travel to Brazil watched on TV, making it the most-viewed World Cup in U.S. history. The final match between Argentina and Germany was the highest-rated soccer match in U.S. history, with 29.2 million viewers tuning in. To put that number in context, the most recent NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers drew an average of 19.9 million viewers.

The Women's World Cup is doing nearly as well. Three of the Americans' first six games were sellouts, and two others were played in front of near-capacity crowds.

"I feel like we are building on what happened last year in the World Cup in terms of just the general population being exposed to the game, so it's important for us," said Jill Ellis, head coach of the U.S. "It continues to excite little girls who want to go out and kick a ball and think they can maybe be on the team and play in a World Cup."

Today's final is already oversold with SeatGeek, a major Web-based ticket agency, which called it the most expensive soccer match in North America since at least 2010.

More than $2.8 million worth of tickets are expected to change hands on the secondary market alone, and tickets for the final match are selling for more than $700.

Fox Sports is also looking to break TV records despite the fact the U.S. has yet to play on a weekend, which is prime time for televised sports. Network executives hope Sunday's game, on a holiday weekend, could draw as many as 18.3 million viewers, which would make it the most-watched women's soccer game in U.S. history. The 1999 final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena between the U.S. and China holds the record for a women's match, with 18.1 million viewers.

"Every four years the media shows up and realizes we are the best in the world at women's soccer," said Arnim Whisler, owner of the Chicago Red Stars in the professional National Women's Soccer League. "Every year there is speculation on ... whether the enthusiasm will last."

The difference this year is drama — a lot of it.

The U.S. women's team has been ranked No. 1 in the world for most of the last 12 years, yet it hasn't won a World Cup in that time and has struggled to expand its fan base beyond preteen girls.

"It's been a lot of years in between 1999 and now, and this team is prepared and focused," said defender Christine Rampone. "After this game — and hopefully we end up on top — it will just grow the game of soccer. I hope it's not compared to 1999 anymore. I hope it's leading on to the next team that wins the World Cup."

But this is a team with more household names — from magazine cover favorite Alex Morgan to Solo, a onetime "Dancing With the Stars" contestant — than any U.S. women's national team in any sport. And with them come more story lines than a soap opera.

Will Wambach, a former world player of the year and the leading goal scorer, male or female, in international soccer history, finally win a World Cup, filling the one hole left on her resume?

And how about midfielders Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd and Heather O'Reilly? They too have been hunting a world title like Ahab hunted a whale, coming to play in a combined 10 World Cups without winning.

Can Solo, the sport's best goalkeeper on the field and one of its most troubled players off it, keep her focus for one more game?

Solo was in danger of missing this World Cup after being suspended from the team in February after her husband was arrested for DUI while behind the wheel of a U.S. Soccer van. The suspension came on the heels of a domestic violence arrest for an incident involving Solo and members of her family last June.

Then there's Morgan, who has become the face of the team even though injuries sidelined her at the beginning of the tournament. She has started the last four games, scoring the winning goal in the second-round victory over Colombia and repeatedly bedeviling defenders in the Americans' semifinal upset of Germany.

It's a team full of personalities, from Ellis, the often-dour, close-to-the-vest coach who cut her teeth running the program at UCLA, to the bubbly enthusiasm of defenders Meghan Klingenberg and Julie Johnston, neither of whom were starters when Ellis took over the team 14 months ago.

It's America's team as well. When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage last month, the team — which counts Ellis, Wambach and midfielder Megan Rapinoe among its openly gay members — planned a goal celebration to salute the decision but the team never got a two-goal lead against China.

Even Sunday's final is dripping with drama.

Four years ago, the U.S. lost two late leads against Japan before eventually losing the game on penalty kicks. It was such a crushing defeat for the Americans one of the Japanese players actually came over to comfort Solo afterward.

The team eventually regained its composure, the players collecting their silver medals and returning to New York, where they were feted in Times Square, congratulated by President Obama and invited to appear on every TV talk show with a microphone and a desk.

Now the U.S.gets Japan again. And just imagine how popular the team will be if it wins this time.

"Obviously, the media attention and social media and people feeling like they're part of it, and knowing the personalities of the team I think has helped grow this sport," Rampone said.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11

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