Maybe there’s something to be said for getting whomped upside the head in the pre-Olympic year. Three times the United States women’s soccer team has finished third in the World Cup and come back the following summer to win the gold medal at the Games. After they won the Cup in 1999, they were beaten by the Norwegians in Sydney.
“We’re so competitive that we’re probably so upset and disappointed from our previous World Cup losses that it gives us that extra bite and that extra hunger,” muses midfielder Heather O’Reilly, whose teammates will be shooting for their third straight title in London.
This time the Americans are coming off an eviscerating loss to the Japanese at last year’s Cup in Frankfurt, where they were vanquished in a penalty-kick shootout after leading with four minutes to play in overtime.
“Because we got so close and lost in the most dramatic way you can lose a soccer tournament adds even more fuel to the fire,” says forward Abby Wambach, who’d scored the go-ahead goal in that match.
While coach Pia Sundhage thinks that this US squad is better than the one that bested Brazil in overtime in Beijing four years ago, the rest of the planet has upgraded, too.
“The improvement on the women’s side is very fast right now,” she says.
Four years ago, the Japanese didn’t win a medal at the Games. Now they rule the planet and they’re only one of a half-dozen rivals that Uncle Sam’s nieces have to worry about. Brazil and Germany, the other 2008 medalists, still are dangerous. The Canadians forced the Americans into overtime in Beijing and the Swedes beat them in group play at the Cup. And the French, whom the US team will face in their opener Wednesday in Glasgow, are on the rise after placing fourth at the Cup and earning their first Games ticket.
“The gap has definitely lessened,” observes goalkeeper Hope Solo.
That’s why Sundhage is reluctant to consider much of anything beyond the next 90 minutes on the schedule.
“I won’t talk about the gold medal that much,” she says. “I’m just talking about the next game, all the way to the final.”
There was a time when reaching the championship match was all but assumed for the Americans, even if they frequently had to labor mightily to get there. Now, just making the medal round has become a Herculean chore.
It took the US 101 minutes of sweat to vanquish its northern neighbor in the Beijing quarterfinals. Last year, Wambach had to score with two minutes tacked on to overtime just to get her colleagues into a shootout with Brazil for a spot in the Cup semifinals.
“We definitely realize that nothing’s a given,” acknowledges Carli Lloyd, whose overtime goal against Brazil clinched the gold medal at the last Games. “It’s not a given that we qualify for a World Cup or an Olympics. It’s not a given that we even make it out of our group.”
After losing to Mexico for the first time the Americans had to beat Italy in a home-and-home playoff to qualify for last year’s global tournament. While that might have elevated their blood pressure, they understand that more competitive matches are good for women’s soccer.
“This is what you want to see out of the game,” says Lloyd. “I don’t think it would be good to have 8-0 games against teams all the time.”
Not that the Yanks don’t. They still have double-digit kick-arounds with the Dominicans and Guatemalans and they outscored their regional rivals, 38-0, in the qualifying tourney for London. But once they get to the Games, they’ve historically had to sweat blood to advance. Of the 22 Olympic matches they’ve played since women’s soccer was added to the program in 1996, 14 have been decided by one goal or ended in draws, and each of the last three finals went to overtime.
“It just keeps getting harder and harder and harder,” says Lloyd.
The women’s game has become decidedly more technical, with more emphasis on possession and passing and the Americans, who once could run opponents off the field, have had to adapt. The Japanese, whom the US team once treated as casually as plastic playthings, now give them tutorials on patience and precision.
“We’ve mainly over the years relied on our athleticism and our fitness,” says Lloyd. “But the times are changing and we can’t rely on that anymore.”
Sundhage, a former Swedish star who played against the Americans in the 1996 Games, preaches tactical sophistication, which her tutees have tried to weave into their star-spangled DNA. “The physicality is part of the USA culture,” says Wambach. “It’s who we are.”
The Yanks won in Beijing by banging around the same Brazilians who’d humiliated them by four goals in the 2007 Cup semis. Seven starters from that team return, most notably captain Christie Rampone, Lloyd, and Solo, the world’s best keeper who has become the team’s controversial face.
Just in the last two months she has appeared on the cover of Vogue with tennis player Serena Williams and swimmer Ryan Lochte, received a public warning from the US Anti-Doping Agency for using a pre-menstrual medication that contained a banned drug, and raised eyebrows with her comments about sex in the Olympic village in an ESPN magazine story.
“I know who I am, I know what I believe in, and I’m not going to apologize for that,” Solo says.
What the London team has that the Beijing team did not is two big guns up front — Wambach, who collected gold in 2004 when she scored the winning goal but broke her leg just before the 2008 Games, and Alex Morgan, a former benchwarmer turned dead-eye sniper. That duo has scored 30 of the team’s 68 goals this year and their firepower should be enough to get the defending champs past preliminary opponents France, Colombia, and North Korea, all of whom they dispatched in last year’s Cup.
Winning their group would put the United States on track for another showdown with the Brazilians and a rematch with the Japanese, who handed the Americans their only loss of the year in the Algarve Cup and shut them out for the first time in 58 matches.
“There’s no better motivation than losing,” says Wambach, “This team has something to prove.”