Women's World Cup 2011: Team USA Making Way into Future, Not Making Up for 2007
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A few hundred miles south of Germany's capitol, pioneering is very much a pastime.
Even today, hundreds of years past modern history's exploratory era. Even in Dresden, host of the 2011 Women's World Cup, known neither as exhibition or expedition.
Maybe more than other clubs, that purpose is Team USA's moniker.
They're moving on. They're not making up.
Not for their 2007 showing, brilliant yet sabotaged by curious coaching. Not for a 4-0 loss to Brazil in the semis, 90 more minutes of blunder than their whole tournament.
That was on then-former-turned-starting goalkeeper Brianna Scurry, and then-coach-turned-unemployed Greg Ryan by association.
You credit the four goals against on the sheet of Scurry, not Hope Solo, inexplicably benched after holding opponent scoring and her nation's affections captive for the better half of a month. Solo was reliable, your basement expectation of goalkeepers. Yet she surprised you, marked as the difference between serviceable and otherworldly.
But for some reason, Solo sat, peering through her fingers at what went just beyond Scurry's: goal, after goal, after goal, after goal.
Do you think Team USA had making up to do for its semifinal out in 2007?
You can't put that on Scurry, a former World No. 1 goalkeeper, 2003 cup champ and as strong a fiber as any, for her time, when Mia Hamm was known more for world class play and Gatorade spots with Michael Jordan, than as Nomar Garciaparra's housewife.
But Scurry's game had since staled. Can't blame her for aging.
Or for her furor, even sloping downward in her twilight. Asked to play, Scurry did, like anyone who committed four years a clip for intermittent month-long tournaments, and for all her life.
The decision and its result fall on Ryan, who, if you've noticed, is no longer manager, shuttled out for Pia Sundhage almost before the team charter touched down. That's no coincidence. (Nor is it a function of Solo's public lashing of Ryan's move, totally justified, but entirely irrelevant in a firing Ryan had coming to him.)
So then, this team is absolved. It has nothing to rectify. No reputation to rescue.
It has everything to prove, but to itself and the world, and in that order. With the foremost gaffe bouncing Team USA from the 2007 tournament being a now-corrected mistake, this team's journey is only forward.
That started with a humbling, the 2-0 loss to Sweden in group play and Team USA's only step backward, after mopping up in their first two. This was a winnable game, and one it had to. Not only were the Swedes a team it handled in 2007, but the match would've clinched Group C and a higher seed.
It was Team USA's first taste of urgency. They buckled.
But they learned, something of a misnomer for a team whose will you never questioned. For all they've been at times, flawed and disjointed and pressured, Team USA has never cowered, from the world's best player (Brazil's Marta) or its loftiest platform (the World Cup).
If nothing else, that legacy will persist well beyond this team's tournament run.
That might be the most peculiar juxtaposition of 2007 and 2011: How didn't expectations? If 2007 proved "championship or bust," so much so that a semifinal out was dubbed catastrophic, how could Team USA have entered 2011 any differently?
The 2007 Germans were as imposing when they won the tournament as they were coming in now, favored to repeat. If anything, the Brazilians that challenged them in the final four years ago strengthened, and with them, their chances.
Yet Team USA entered as something of an underdog. Analysts perched along roundtables and lauded our all-world goalkeeping and unmatched purpose, yet labeled the odds as somewhat stacked.
Whatever the original forecast, a reseeding of favorites is in order. With the Germans bounced by Japan in the quarters and Brazil globally posterized, the prohibitive frontrunners have to be the Americans. And normally under that distinction, you'd expect the same disappointed scourging from anything less than the cup.
But this is where on-paper analysis ends: World Cup success can't be judged like that of other sports. It's too fluid, with factors ever-changing, and player and team stocks rising and falling by the minute.
Most sports feature teams with worlds of film, libraries of stats and sample sizes too big to mistake. Not so for the World Cup; teams only establish themselves here, once every four years, far grander and more telling than any ancillary tournament or international friendly.
Simply: This is where some stars are born, and others fade. Same was the case last summer in South Africa, where relative unknowns David Villa and Diego Forlan emerged, as the rest of the free world (literally) withered.
In other words, predicting what should happen, and the consequences if it doesn't, is impossible. Who knows? Maybe the David Mueller of women's soccer is a Swede.
Only then can you gauge Team USA and whatever run it musters, after their competition is revealed. Can't hammer them for losing to the best team in the tournament, just because we misevaluated the pool coming in.
And I need to see the finish, hopefully not today's semifinal tilt with the French.
Remember: Soccer doesn't use sabermetrics, the indoctrinated in baseball as a means to tell a story, down to the personalized minutiae, only having seen the Spark Notes.
After (and only after) I can tell you everything:
Whether Hope Solo's confidence ballooned to arrogance. Whether Abby Wambach's achy body betrayed her.
If they learned from Rachel Buehler's impulsivity. If Megan Rapinoe conjured more moments.
If Team USA is outmanned, outgunned and outplayed, there's not much room for criticism. It's unfortunate, but they are still an extension of a domestically unpopular, underfunded and underappreciated American soccer circuit.
It shouldn't ease expectation; changing our mindset about our soccer is the only way to change its quality. Just how harshly we scold.
But if they're embarrassed, suffer a meltdown of schemes or psyches, by all means; hammer away.
Something's telling me that won't happen. Not with this core, not riding this wave.
Something's telling me they've got machetes in hand. Something's telling me their dimensions are being recorded.
They're blazing a trail, a soon-to-be past, and how we'll measure the future.
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