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U.S. women's soccer team looks to the future

After a determined run through the Women's World Cup, which ended in a loss to Japan in the final, the American players begin to ponder future tournaments and opportunities to redeem themselves.

July 18, 2011|By David Wharton
  • U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo waves to the crowd following the U.S. team's loss to Japan in the Women's World Cup final on Sunday. Solo hopes she'll have the chance to play at the next World Cup in Canada in 2015.
U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo waves to the crowd following the U.S. team's… (Michael Probst / Associated…)

Maybe the American women had no choice but to look ahead.

Their determined run through the Women's World Cup — three weeks' worth of gritty performances and heart-pounding finishes — had ended a few minutes, a few penalty kicks, short of victory.

No sooner had they lost to an inspired Japanese team at Commerzbank Arena in Frankfurt, Germany, the U.S. players began thinking about chances to redeem themselves.

They talked about defending the gold at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

"Hopefully qualify for that," midfielder Carli Lloyd said, "and continue the journey."

They peered even further into the future, to the next World Cup in Canada.

"Let's just hope I can stick around for another four years," goalkeeper Hope Solo said. "So I can go after the gold."

But leaving this defeat behind might not be so simple. There was much at stake for a squad trying to equal past American triumphs, trying to live up to its No. 1 world ranking. And, for this group, the immediate future holds no guarantees.

If the World Cup was a "bumpy road" — as Coach Pia Sundhage and her players kept saying — there were warning signs along the way.

The U.S. looked shaky during the qualifying campaign with lapses at midfield and on defense. An upset loss to Mexico in November forced the team to win three clutch games to earn a trip to Germany.

Then came a turning point, oddly enough after another loss, this one to Sweden, the first time the U.S. had stumbled in World Cup pool play.

"I really want us to embrace the pressure," Sundhage said at the time. "I think we'll get stronger."

That is precisely what happened.

A quarterfinal matchup against Brazil delivered one of the greatest victories in U.S. soccer history as the team scrambled back from a controversial red card, staying alive with Abby Wambach's last-second header and a perfect round of penalty kicks.

By the end, Wambach and her teammates had won over the neutral crowd in Dresden and made new fans back home among people who did not necessarily watch women's soccer.

"I think that is a perfect example of what this country is about, what the history of this team has always been," Wambach said. "We never give up."

The momentum continued through a 3-1 semifinal victory over France and into Sunday's final, where most predictions had the U.S. winning against a skilled but physically overmatched Japan.

"We've learned a lesson," the optimistic Sundhage said beforehand. "We can't take anything for granted."

The cycle of popularity for soccer in this country follows a predictable schedule. The sport operates in the shadow of its established brethren — football, basketball and baseball — emerging every few years when the World Cup or Olympics come along.

This time around, Germany provided enough drama to boost the Q score of the two biggest personalities on the U.S. roster.

Start with Wambach, who at 5-11 towers over most opponents. This is a woman who was deemed unfit during her first go-round with the national team in the early 2000s and needed a dazzling season in pro soccer to earn a second chance.

Since then, she had developed into a fiery leader with a knack for headers, a curious art that combines precise timing and brute force.

"Obviously," she explained recently, "there is a lot of courage that goes into heading the ball."

The clutch goal against Brazil was followed by similar scores against France and Japan. Television shots of Wambach encouraging her teammates, hollering, veins popping out, confirmed her role on the national squad.

"She's so vocal and fired up and passionate," said Julie Foudy, the former star turned television analyst. "She has really willed this team along."

At the other end of the field, Solo came into the tournament recognized as the world's top goalkeeper but won a new legion of fans with a dramatic turnaround against Brazil.

First came the controversial red card when she made a diving save on the ensuing penalty kick, only to have Australian referee Jacqui Melksham order a re-try for reasons no one could decipher.

Then came another diving save in penalty kicks that provided the margin for victory. Once again, a U.S. star had come through.

"There's something to be said about this team," Sundhage said. "This American attitude of pulling everything together and bringing out the best performance in each other is contagious."

Although Wambach and Solo made headlines, a quieter presence might be more important to the future of American women's soccer.

Sundhage took over a program in turmoil three years ago. The team had lost, 4-0, to Brazil in the semifinals of the 2007 World Cup and endured a public feud between Solo and then-coach Greg Ryan.

The 51-year-old Swede, a former star player in her country, brought a calmer attitude that focused on constructive criticism. She also had clear ideas about where the Americans needed to go.

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