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U.S. women's soccer team faces reality of living in the present

September 30, 2007|Litke | By Jim and Associated Press

Don't get distracted by the blame game. Brazil was every bit as good as the 4-0 beating it administered to the United States in the Women's World Cup semifinal indicated -- and maybe even better than that.

Although U.S. Coach Greg Ryan's decision to switch goalkeepers at the 11th hour was hardly his only knuckleheaded move during the tournament, that didn't cost his team the game. It didn't help, to be sure, and neither did the disruptive, destructive whining by Hope Solo, who lost her starting job to Briana Scurry.

Yet even if Ryan could have played them on the goal line side-by-side, it would have made little difference. That's how thoroughly the day belonged to the Samba Queens, start to finish. They had nearly twice as much possession and more than twice as many shots on goal.

Ditto for the sending off of U.S. midfielder Shannon Boxx, which forced the U.S. team to play the second half with only 10 players. Granted, her second yellow card, in stoppage time at the end of the first half, was a horrible call by referee Nicole Petignat. But the Americans were overmatched and already down, 2-0. If the equally overmatched Petignat hadn't blown an equally outrageous call on a missed penalty when Brazil's Cristiane was taken down in the box earlier, it would have been 3-0 by then.

It's both a blessing and a curse for soccer in this country that most Americans pay attention only when the World Cup or Olympics roll around.

Even so, expectations for the women's team were much greater than they ever have been for the men. Not just because they were the class of the field when international play began in earnest in 1991, but also because Mia Hamm, the game's first real superstar, is an American and many of the most recognizable faces during that reign happened to be her teammates.

On top of that, opportunities and support for female athletes are still better here than anywhere else, even factoring in the failure of a women's pro soccer league a few years back.

Still, just like the men, the women suffer from the lack of a real soccer culture here. The women don't lose nearly as many topflight athletes to other sports, but like the men, nearly all of them begin playing soccer in organized leagues, taught by volunteers just learning the game themselves.

The coaching gets better as players advance through the national team ranks, but there's no substitute for the imagination players develop playing countless pickup games in narrow alleyways or on tiny, dirt-encrusted fields, where the ability to improvise or anticipate a quirky bounce is everything.

If you want to see how that manifests itself at the highest levels, watch a video clip of Marta's second goal in the 79th minute for Brazil. With apologies to Hamm, she's already more skillful with the ball than Mia ever was. And the behind-the-back flick she used to beat U.S. defender Tina Ellertson on the left edge of the box showed her to be just as audacious as anybody on Brazil's men's team, for whom the term "o jogo bonito" -- "the beautiful game" -- was invented.

For more than a decade, the U.S. women's superior athleticism was enough of an advantage to win nearly every time out. But a number of the other top national teams closed that gap in recent years, and their women developed an understanding of how to play together that the U.S. team displays only occasionally. Most of the time, the Americans' offensive strategy consisted of kicking the ball long and down the middle of the field, relying on striker Abby Wambach to retrieve it, then beat several defenders, usually single-handedly.

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