Commentary: U.S. Women's World Cup team can hold their heads high

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramJuly 18, 2011 

In sports, as in life, be careful who you embrace.

They can break your heart.

Until Sunday, the U.S. women's World Cup team had been the feel-good story of the summer. Hope Solo had become America's sweetheart, with Alex Morgan running a close second.

But as forward Abby Wambach said, and as the U.S. women know as much as anyone, sometimes things just aren't meant to be.

So, bravo, Japan. Undersized and underdogs to the very last minute, the Japanese women kept coming back, coming back, until the U.S. women finally fell 3-1 in penalty kicks under the weight of their own frustrations.

But winners abounded at the FIFA Women's World Cup final in Frankfurt, Germany.

Make no mistake, Japan earned the World Cup for a nation that yearned for something to cheer for.

Forgive me, though, if I sound like a soccer mom wanting to turn off the scoreboard to preserve the kids' self-esteems. I think the U.S. team and women's soccer, in general, can walk away from the 2011 World Cup with heads held high.

We live in a nation where, to most -- the TV networks and mainstream media, in particular -- soccer straddles a vague line between youth-league diversion and niche viewing sport.

Quick... Name the head coach of the Dallas team in Major League Soccer.

See?

But as Wambach, Morgan, Solo and the rest of Team USA showed in Germany, when played at its highest level by women or men, soccer can be as passionate and engaging as any of this nation's legacy sports.

The final was like a pilot for a good TV series. Cleanly played. Virtually devoid of the oh-my-ankle theatrics that the men employ. Wambach's volcanic intensity. Megan Rapinoe's deft touch.

You may tsk-tsk FIFA for deciding its grandest championships by penalty kicks, but stop and think. The two sides had been running up and down the field for 120 minutes, with no timeouts and only one notable intermission. A sudden-death extra-extra period might well have produced a fluke deciding goal, and how would that have been better?

By the time Sunday's match reached the shootout, anyway, the U.S. team should have already seen its fate, written across the crossbar.

You could see women's soccer had climbed its way into American fans' heads when Twitter exploded after the final with complaints about strategy, missed chances and Pia Sundhage's coaching.

Here's my two cents, earned after covering U.S. women's soccer teams over the past 27 years:

Missed opportunities are a part of soccer. The U.S. team erred when, after dominating the midfield and playing so well in the Japanese end, it failed to maintain the pressure. Twice.

Some Americans handled the moment better than others. Midfielder Carli Lloyd had another unfortunate day, turning the ball over and -- as if to make up for the kind of week she was having -- firing wild shots halfway to Berlin.

And what were U.S. defenders Rachel Buehler and Ali Krieger thinking in the six-yard box on the first Japan goal. Buehler? Buehler?

Fresher legs could have helped at the end for the Americans, but with a shootout still a possibility, it's hard to understand Sundhage's substitution of Tobin Heath for Rapinoe. Heath added nothing, including her penalty kick.

As ESPN cheerleader -- I mean, color commentator -- Julie Foudy talked about how much the Americans practice protecting a lead. Really?

Forgive me, though, for second-guessing. This women's World Cup always was billed and staged as an event -- something to be viewed on more aesthetic terms than Xs and Os.

What it showed us, as much as anything, is that competition and honest emotion still sell. Japan earned the cup, but women's sports deserved the postgame confetti.

How could you watch Wambach and not appreciate her athleticism?

The Internet was awash, somewhat sadly, with juvenile chatter about Solo, the "hot" U.S. goalkeeper.

Hey, Beavis, please tell your partner to grow up.

For the women of the USA, the World Cup drought continues. It'll be 16 years long by the time we gather in front of the TV set to watch them try again.

But it's sports. Be careful who you embrace.

Bravo, Japan.

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