No more rabbits, but progress for women’s soccer

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The United States women’s national soccer team spent most of the past year with their backs against the wall. After losing to Mexico in the semifinals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the Stars and Stripes had to beat Costa Rica in the third place game just to set up a home-and-home series with Italy for the opportunity to advance to the World Cup. They beat Italy in both matches, but by only 1-0 margins in each. The U.S. was the last team to qualify for Germany 2011.

2011 didn’t start much better. The U.S. dropped their first match in the Four Nations Tournament to Sweden, 3-1, and had to rely on a bit of luck to eke out a tournament win over Canada on goal differential. They did coast through the Algarve Cup, but any idea that they might have things put right was eliminated less than a month later, when they lost to England in an international friendly.

And then came the World Cup. And the U.S. lost in pool play to Sweden — the first loss in pool play in U.S. women’s soccer history. And then, of course, came the quarterfinal matchup with Brazil, and Wambach’s brilliant, last-gasp goal to tie. And then a match with a plucky but overmatched French squad. And then, finally, a game against Nadeshiko Japan, who were only playing for a nation wounded by a tsunami and a nuclear disaster.

Alas, there would be no more rabbits to pull out of the hat. Though the United States played well — very well — it seemed like fortune favored the Japanese in the match. Three times the United States hit the post. Twice they took the lead, only to have Japan get level. And then came the penalties — and if there was any doubt who the Soccer Gods favored, it was eliminated on the very first shot, when Japanese keeper Ayumi Kaihoridove too far to save Shannon Boxx’s shot toward the middle of the net…but still managed, somehow, to deflect it away with a toe.

This was not a loss to hang one’s head about. Japan played this game like they had the rest of the knockout round — calm, composed, focused, never rattled. Yes, there were mistakes by the Americans — Japan’s first goal was a complete U.S. defensive breakdown, something that will have to be addressed before the 2012 Olympics — but it came because Japan was playing excellent soccer, and playing with exceptional heart. They matched the Americans when they needed to, just as they’d matched the Germans and more than matched the Swedes.

No, it just came down to luck, and the United States had burned through all its luck just to get to the final. And sometimes, that’s all there is to it.

While, as a partisan American, I’m disappointed in the outcome of the match, I’m not upset about it the way I would have been had the U.S. dropped the quarterfinal to Brazil. Japan played superlative soccer this tournament, and defeated the #2, #5, and #1 teams in the world to win the World Cup. That’s not a fluke, and sometimes, all you can do is take your hat off to the other team, and try to get ‘em next time.

And that is the best thing to come out of this match. For going into the tournament, there was general consensus that there were three teams — Germany, Brazil, and the U.S. — with a chance to win the tournament, and thirteen teams just hoping to get lucky. But anyone who watched the knockout round knows that only Australia looked overmatched; at least seven teams had a shot to advance at least to the semifinals, and frankly, the teams that did reach the semis all had moments where they could see the road to the final.

That is unquestionably a good thing. The old days, when women’s soccer teams were playing on two entirely different tiers, was fun for U.S. soccer fans, because we were on the top tier. But those days are gone. In 2015, Japan will be the defending World Cup champions. Germany and Brazil will be looking to rebound from disappointing quarterfinal exits. The U.S. will be trying to get the trophy they were ten minutes away from winning this year. England and France and Sweden will believe that they’re a bit older and a bit smarter and a bit better. The Auzzies will be better. So will North Korea. And Canada had been playing at a high level before the tournament. And Nigeria played Germany tough. And in perhaps a dozen countries, maybe more, a whole bunch of women are going to bed tonight, thinking that if they practice hard and play their cards right, they might just get a chance to win the World Cup in Canada in 2015. And that’s a win for anybody who likes women’s soccer, and anyone who likes women, period. I just wish they could be dreaming of winning the cup from the United States. But we can’t have everything.

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