U.S. hopes to snap out of funk
THESSALONIKI, Greece -- Nervousness. Anxiousness. Fear of failure. Lack of confidence.
Soccer fans usually don't associate those negative traits with the vaunted U.S. Women's National Team, winners of two Women's World Cups and an Olympic gold medal in the past 13 years.
But those doubts have plagued the U.S. women's soccer team in the Olympic soccer tournament, according to a pair of strikers who have rarely shown self doubt in their performances - Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach.
Hamm, the old pro, and Wambach, the new star on the block, have their own ideas of what has held back the Americans from reaching their true potential at these Summer Games.
"Dissatisfied? Absolutely," Wambach said on Thursday while sitting on a couch in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. "But April (Heinrichs, the coach) said it best: 'I would rather have our worse games behind us than ahead of us.' We have nowhere to go but up and we realize that and know that it will take a little bit more all-around responsibility."
In a separate interview, Hamm came up with similar remarks. "We haven't performed the way we can and the way we need to in this tournament," she said on the eve of Friday's quarterfinal match vs. Japan here.
"We have a lot of work to do. It starts ... with Japan. If we don't perform or don't do what we need to do, we get to go watch other events live. And none of us want to do that."
Yes, the U.S. won its group with a 2-0-1 mark, outscoring its foes, 6-1. Most women's team will take that. But it goes well beyond numbers. We're talking about the best women's program on the planet. So, the expectations are high as the Americans have played probably their shakiest soccer in a big competition since the 1995 Women's World Cup in Sweden, when they finished a disappointing third.
"There has been something missing, whether it be a systemic change, whether it be a lineup change," said Wambach, who has scored in 16 of her last 17 international matches and has found the back of the net 30 times in 42 games. "Whatever the reason is, we have to figure it out. We just can't sit here and say we've got to do this. We can't will something to happen, especially something so big. We can't do it by chance. It has to be done because we've prepared for it. People have to be confident on the ball.
"People have to play on their edge. That's the type of consistency we need: Playing with all you've got, leaving it all on the field. Everything else in my opinion will work itself out."
Asked if she felt things were too organized or too rigid on the team, Wambach replied, "I don't think that. Certain things can inhibit that - fear, nervousness, other team's pressure. So many things are involved with key players not performing their best in big-time situations in big-time games."
Heinrichs has deployed the most organized system of the three national coaches; Anson Dorrance (1985-1994) and Tony DiCicco (1994-1999) are the others. Perhaps it is stifling some of the talent.
Hamm played on teams that had so much overwhelming talent -- Michelle Akers, Heinrichs and herself up front as well as Carin (Jennings) Gabarra, Julie Foudy and Kristine Lilly in the midfield -- that they attacked in waves without fear of the opponent striking back. That translated into world championships in 1991 and 1999 and Olympic gold in 1996.
"We do just need to play," said Hamm, who has scored more international goals (153) more than any other man or woman in the world. "Everyone on this team is talented. Everyone on this team can go forward and serve a great ball and can solve pressure ... At the same time, the system is to help you organize in some kinds or environments."
Regardless of the system, Hamm felt a player's playing personality should be strong enough to overcome the shackles of any system.
"Rather than letting the system describe what your personality should be, your personality should come out in the system that you're playing," she said. "There are times we do that incredibly well and there are times when just naturally it doesn't come out that way.
"But that doesn't mean you don't continue to push forward because this team had flashes where we played incredibly well, incredibly free. Then there are times when we played pretty tight.
"People are nervous, people are anxious. People, for some reason that day don't have the confidence that they did last week. That's human nature."
Some players are being motivated by of a fear of failure, Wambach said.
"When you walk off the field and know you've given your whole 100 percent effort, no matter what the scoreboard says, you can look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'I did what I came to do.' That's what we all need. And maybe that's a little bit what we've all been lacking - the ability to say 'You know what, I'm not going to be afraid to fail. I'm not going to be afraid to make mistakes and take risks because there is a fine line between brilliance and failure. There's no such thing in my mind as failure when you're giving 100 percent. You may make mistakes. Those things happen."
But the fear of failure at the international level by players on a National Team that has been admired and used as a model worldwide? Now, that's incredible.
"They (the players) have their own personal goals for this Olympics," Wambach said. "These are our pressure situations that we have gotten ourselves into: Knowing that the rest of the world is gaining on us, knowing that we are not the champions, we have something prove. Knowing that these five players who have meant so much to this country and to this sport, it's going to be their last go-around together."
Wambach was talking about Joy Fawcett, Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly and Hamm.
"These are just all the pressures," she said. "We have so much to prove. And that I think is stress relieving. But some players might not think that.
"The fact of the matter is that we have control over our destiny right now. We have choices. And if we choose to do good with them, then I think things will work out in our favor."
Whether the U.S. players can shake those self doubts and get some positive vibes, it remains to be seen - starting with Friday's quarterfinals. If they don't, the Olympics end for them earlier than planned.
Michael Lewis, soccer columnist for the New York Daily News, will provide commentary about the U.S. women's Olympic team and other soccer matches at the Summer Games in Athens for ESPN.com. He is the only journalist to have covered 21 of 22 U.S. Women's National Team games in the last two Olympics (1996 and 2000) and Women's World Cup (1999 and 2003). He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com