For many female national team programs, third place at the FIFA Women's World Cup would be a dream. However, the U.S women, ranked No. 1 internationally before the tournament, had their eyes on the main prize.
"Obviously, as a team we had as our goal to win the World Cup," midfielder Shannon Boxx said.
Collectively and individually, the U.S. women's national team is now carrying some scars from the competition, even as the players try to put a brave face on the debacle.
Although the U.S. finished third in the World Cup twice (1995 and 2003), those finishes were the result of a defeat to the eventual champions (Norway and Germany, respectively). Yet though Brazil looked impressive in defeating the United States in the semifinals, it was no match for the disciplined Germans in the final.
This U.S. team also made history in another dubious aspect -- suffering its worst defeat ever in that 4-0 loss to Brazil.
"We were fighting for our honor and pride, maybe not necessarily to win, but to keep our dignity," defender Stephanie Lopez said of that game.
Controversy surrounded the squad throughout the tournament. It began as a rumbling during the team's inconsistent performance in the group stages. It rose to a crescendo when coach Greg Ryan decided to bench the regular starting goalkeeper, Hope Solo, for the game versus Brazil. Solo's public disagreement with his decision after Brazil won led to the team barring her from the final third-place match and the medal ceremony. Solo did not even come home on the same flight as her teammates, but she was listed on the roster for the team's three-match tour versus Mexico.
Players avoided the topic of whether there would be any further censure of Solo or if she would now be welcomed back to the team.
"That's just another internal thing that we're dealing with as a team," said Boxx.
Like most of the World Cup players, Solo has a residency contract with U.S. Soccer, one that allows her to train full time as an athletic professional. Her actual playing time, however, is controlled by the man she criticized.
"That's up to Greg [Ryan]," midfielder Lori Chalupny said. "We'll find out the starting lineup the night before [the Mexico match], as usual."
With pundits from coast to coast weighing in on the U.S. women, and on whether Ryan's choice was the worst move in the entire history of soccer, the team could understandably be distracted.
"Even going into these three games where we should be celebrating with our fans, instead of the media being based on the team, it's being based on this one thing," said Boxx. "It's a little disappointing."
Fans who agreed with Solo's statements may not be in the mood to celebrate.
The upcoming matches could have perhaps pulled the attention of both supporters and the media back to the sport if the opponent was of a different caliber. North Korea played the U.S. to a tough draw. Germany is now the only other squad besides the U.S. to win two World Cups. There is no doubt, however, that one rival would pique the most interest.
Even Chalupny was anticipating a rematch.
"I would love to face Brazil again and I'm pretty sure that we will somewhere down the road. They're an amazing team as far as their creativity on the ball and their comfort level. Skill-wise on the ball, they're really a step above any other team that we've played."
Mexico, though a respectable CONCACAF opponent, can hardly be considered on that level. The women's El Tri did not even qualify for the World Cup tournament. If anything, the tour versus the U.S. could help the Mexican women considerably, giving them good exposure to a tough opponent at an opportune time.
"They're one of the best teams in CONCACAF and they're aiming for the Olympics qualifiers," Boxx said.
For the U.S., though, who aims to win the Olympics, not merely participate, these matches cannot be considered as serious preparation. So the American players were fairly relaxed about the upcoming tour.
"I'm looking forward to some game action," Chalupny said. "This celebration tour is great because it will be good to get out there with our fans and have some fun out there."
Perhaps the most encouraging lesson that the American players could take out of the World Cup was how well they executed versus Norway in the third-place match, a 4-1 victory.
"As a team we came back together and came back in the third place game," Boxx said, though her role was limited to cheering from the bench due to a red-card suspension.
Yet Lopez said the sideline was where she learned her most important lesson of the World Cup, when she was subbed for the second half versus Brazil.
"To be a part of that bench cheering them, as painful as it is to see them, to see your team losing; to really learn what it is to be a good teammate, and not to feel sorry for myself and that I played poorly in the first half, but just to be an encouragement to my team," Lopez said. "I know that that is a huge life lesson that I can take off the field."
Solo aside, the team has rallied around Ryan, but it remains to be seen whether he will continue as coach, since his contract ends at the close of the year. Other unanswered questions include whether Kristine Lilly will continue with the squad. The immediate issue, though, is clearly whether Solo, who once seemed a lock for the foreseeable future, can re-establish a working relationship with her teammates.
One substantial incentive for resolution is the fact that the team has its sights set on another major tournament.
"We're working through it," said Boxx of the team's current crisis. "Time always helps heal things. We're going to come and play these three games and we're going to try to win these three games. Then we're going to have a little time off and I hope what the veterans like myself can do is come back and refocus the team for the Olympics, which is only 10 months away."
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
|U.S. women's schedule
|U.S. vs. Mexico
Edward Jones Dome
St. Louis, Mo. (8 p.m. ET)