Heartbreak for the U.S. But a Win for USA Soccer
It was an unbelievable night in Germany in the Women's World Cup Final, one that has left this writer nearly speechless, and undoubtedly dejected. It was a gut wrenching defeat for the U.S. and an impossible triumph for the Japanese. Crestfallen as I am, I press on and give you my thoughts on the Women's World Cup Final and what this means for USA Soccer as a whole.
My first thought: WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED?! Seriously! What was that?! The game started out terrifically for the U.S. In the first fifteen minutes they certainly looked the better side - stronger and faster than the Japanese. U.S. coach Pia Sundhage's decision to start Megan Rapinoe for the first time this World Cup payed off immediately. The winger was combining with Lauren Cheney to create possession and eventually scoring chances for the U.S. Abby Wambach was finding space in the box, especially through the impressive aerial advantage the Americans had, and she was racking up the scoring chances.
One problem. No goals. The first thirty minutes were American domination, their game was as good as it has been all World Cup, except for their scoring touch. The U.S. could not find the back of the net. They had the advantage everywhere on the field, but not on the score board, and it would come back to haunt them. The Japanese began to claw their way back into the game and it seemed that Mr. Momentum had changed his address - if you'll permit me a Little Giants quote.
As of the the end of the first half, despite the U.S. ringing the posts on more than one occasion, Japan was getting the better of the chances. When half-time came, the U.S. should have been comfortably ahead, but they found themselves even at nils. Sundhage would bring on the speedy Alex Morgan at halftime, with Lauren Cheney icing her ankle during the second half. It was a bit of bad luck for the Americans. Cheney, along with Rapinoe was one of the best Americans on the field. Their pace and creativity was unmatched by the Japanese and I worried that this would spell disaster for the U.S.
Well. I called that one a little early. Morgan's entrance into the game immediately payed dividends for the U.S. as her speed overtook the Japanese defense. As Japan's momentum kept building, with their offense making more and more of an impact on the game, Rapinoe, who was still the best U.S. player on the field - with unrivaled imagination in the offensive half - a game as vibrant as that beach blond hair, flew an unbelievable long ball forward from practically her own 18 and found Morgan who sped past the defense and drove home a perfect shot for the lead. It was just another great moment for Megan Rapinoe in this World Cup. For my money she was the best U.S. player all tournament. This time she combined with Morgan, 1-0 to the U.S.
The goal in the 69th should have sealed it for the Americans but their defense wasn't up to the task. The U.S. was an utter mess at the back, seemingly choosing a scramble style defense over a structured one. After two horrendous clearance attempts in their own six yard box Japan would pull level with just nine minutes to play. The game would head to extra time level at ones, a disaster for the U.S.
If the U.S. were to win they would need to rally in a big way. Their defense was in shambles and their offense looked tired at best, certainly lacking the imagination that had been part of their game throughout the World Cup. But defiant as they were, the Americans would rally and up their game in extra time. In the 104th minute Alex Morgan would find Wambach at the top the 6-yard box and Wambach would head it home for the go-ahead goal.
The lead was theirs. The impressive play of Rapinoe and Morgan lead to yet another dramatic goal off the magnificent dome of Abby Wambach. All that was left was fifteen minutes of defense and the glory was theirs. But again, the U.S. defense fell to pieces. They were scrambling at the back again, with the Japanese finding too much space behind the back line. Then, after U.S. captain Christie Rampone played the hero, clearing a ball that got behind Solo, the Japanese pulled level on a corner kick. It was a lovely bit of magic that brought the Japanese back once again at the death of the game. We'd go to penalties.
And here it all just seemed too much for the Americans. Losing to Sweden, having to claw their way back in one of the great soccer games of all time against Brazil, taking on France, and all the drama of this World Cup Final - it just all seemed to hit them when it came time for penalties. Having been in a penalty shootout once already this tournament, the Japanese goalie had too much to go on. So when Shannon Boxx's penalty was saved, the air was out of the team. They'd miss their next two penalties and despite a brilliant Hope Solo save, the U.S, would fall to Japan 3-1 in penalties.
It was a depressing result for the Americans, to lead late twice, only to have the game torn away from them. In what was an emotional tournament it seemed the emotion was just out of the Americans. Can you fault them? The U.S. played an amazing tournament. They were a terrifically resilient team and one of the great sporting stories of the year. Once again, they brought national, front page attention to a sport that normally begs for space on page six. So where does this leave U.S. Soccer?
To me? Stronger than ever. What started last summer with the emotional and energetic, though disappointing, run of the American men crescendoed this summer with the valiant, courageous run of the women. Not only have so many people never been this interested in the world's game, but having this many interested in the women's game hasn't happened since their 1999 World Cup Win.
But we have something now that we didn't have then in this country. Momentum. Never has soccer been this big in the U.S...Well, it's never been this not overlooked - if you'll permit me a double negative. Two straight summers of energetic, exciting soccer play; it's been terrific. With Olympic qualifying to begin soon and the London Olympics coming next summer, soccer has never been in a better way in the U.S. Both the men's and women's teams are extraordinarily exciting and the women's team is legitimately a world class squad who will threaten in any tournament they enter.
It is my hope that the energy soccer has built up in this past year will continue to build. Soccer is a terrific game and when played at its highest level it is a true joy to watch. With interest in hockey and NASCAR seemingly waning, soccer has a chance to become a top five sport in this country. Will it ever happen? Maybe. Maybe not. But a good soccer game is one of the best to watch and it deserves a top spot in the biggest sports market in the world.
Congratulations to the U.S. Women's National team. They may not have won, but they played an unbelievable tournament and captivated the nation and the world. Well done.