Sunday, July 17, 2011

In A Loss, A Future Victory For American Soccer

Hey look, its another generation of youth captivated by a women's team. I'm sure that won't pay dividends for the future of American soccer...
The word "destiny" got thrown around pretty casually in the run up to this Women's World Cup Final. Granted it was by a lot of media types looking to make Sunday's match as hyperbolic as possible; most American soccer fans held back only hoping for the best while fearing the worst (hey it's in our nature).

"Destiny" is one of those words that should never be used in sports, or really, anywhere. Unless you've got a signed letter from God (or the gods) leave the "D-word" packed up. Sports have a funny (no depressing) way of playing out.

I took the loss hard. Probably harder than the men's loss to Ghana in 2010. This was a final after all. I'll be the first to admit... tears were shed... lots of them. Beers, naturally, followed tears.

Reflecting on this U.S. Women's National Team run to the WWC Final the casual observer would almost have assumed that a victory was assured. A dramatic victory versus Brazil and an inspired performance against France got them this far. Japan... good wins, but another speed bump to our third title.

For as much as grit and determination got the Lady Nats to the final, Japan happened to have just a little bit more. Just like the U.S., outmatched and outplayed for large stretches of their wins in the quarterfinals and semi-finals, so was Japan, but down twice, they fought back, and won on penalties that made Nike's "Pressure Makes Us" campaign seem quite silly (the ad ran following the conclusion of the match making it all the more salt-in-the-wound).

The magic ran out at the wrong time. All the right players played their roles. Alex Morgan clinically finished to amp up the hype machine on her future USMNT career. Abby Wambach finished another fine header effort to lead the Lady Nats. Hope Solo was solid and stopped yet another PK. The rest of the supporting cast: Megan Rapinoe, Lauren Cheney, Carli Lloyd, captain Christine Rampone, et al all performed admirably.

The difference became in full-time as it were in penalties, Japan finished when it counted, while the U.S. did not. The penalty misses and saves were representative of the countless missed opportunities during regular and extra time.


I was interviewed during the match by a local news crew about what a victory would mean for women's soccer in the United States. I said that this squad would be able to escape the ghosts of the 1999ers and final forge a new identity for themselves. That hopefully this event would take even a small percentage of casuals and make them into new fans.

What I failed to mention (and in thinking now the interview probably won't run because the women losts) was that irrespective of whether these American ladies won or lost doesn't change the incredible journey they brought us all on.

Hope Solo is still the best goal keeper in women's soccer.

Abby Wambach is still the best header of the ball in the game (honestly, men or women) and a damn good finisher.

Alex Morgan has the potential to become and electric force for the USWNT for the next two or three World Cups; an exciting prospect that should have U.S. fans drooling at the prospects of the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada (road trip, anyone?)

It doesn't change the fact that you can see each one of these amazing women playing week-in-and-week-out in the Women's Professional Soccer league. It doesn't change the fact that, next year, almost the exact same squad will compete in the Olympic games in London, a tournament that is incredibly prestigious in the women's game (as opposed to the men's game where it's seen as a youth tournament).

The millions of casual eyes that turned toward the TVs and filled the bars across American will quietly slink back to, well, whatever they were watching before. America loves a winner until they are the losers.

This women's squad, is, though, anything but losers. In a tournament run marked by the Lady Nats' ability to dig deeper than their opponents, Japan was to claw even deeper. Credit to them.

American need not to abandon their summertime heroes. Right now we a desperate for something positive. The debt crisis, Casey Anthony, I'm sure in a few weeks, shark attacks, dominate the news.

Abby Wambach still headed home one of the most dramatic game winners in all of professional sports. Hope Solo still spread out to deny Brazil. The depth and determination of this team is still undeniable. A loss takes nothing away from the dramatic events and efforts that brought them to this place on Sunday. A loss does not make those moments disappear. 

Where do we go from here? A win, while satisfying, well, incredibly satisfying, would be momentary. Perhaps the WPS would see a bump from casual fans wanting to see their World Cup heroes in person?

They can still do that. They are still heroes. They still exist.

All of those casual fans that filled my American Outlaws chapter bar to capacity give us good measure of the potential for soccer in America and the American soccer landscape. They are out there, waiting to be mesmerized again. The goal is now to let them know that these games happen all the time and these players (both male and female) fight for the honor of their country's colors more often that the lazy days of summer when baseball drags on an football and basketball are hibernating. 

The people that filled bars across the nation and living rooms around the U.S. show that this sport is no longer in the shadows. This Women's World Cup wave was built on the back of the men's journey in 2010, built on the back of all the American soccer journeys stretching back to 1999 and even before to 1994. Every successive generation American soccer is capturing more of their hearts and minds.

Just like the U.S.'s odds for the next Women's World Cup, for the American soccer fan base, the foundation is there. It's up to us, to make sure we're still there, inviting them along for the riding, buying them a beer, each and every time. 

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"Anyone who tells me soccer is boring, I'm going to punch them in the face."
- Former Dallas Burn (aka FC Dallas) coach Dave Dir

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