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Oct 18, 2007

Time for the "Girls of Summer" to grow up

As catchy slogans go, perhaps "The Wizened Women of Summer" doesn't have the same virtuous aplomb. But slick nicknames aside, it seems time for the beloved "Girls of Summer" and their program to grow up.

It's time for the innocents to move away from home. Stay out late. Maybe even get a tattoo. The recent embarrassing keeper kerfuffle seems like the perfect moment for the program to mature into adulthood and ditch some of the outdated Pollyanna.

The U.S. women's national team is still collecting the litter strewn about over Asia. We all winced as the Girls of Summer -- so dubbed by a book of that title about the 1999 Women's World Cup champs -- had their own France '98 meltdown moment.

In a few unhinged days, the team devolved from a group of inspirational achievers to a leaderless gaggle in colossal disarray. It disintegrated amid a flurry of kooky coaching maneuvers, infighting and petulant retribution. (Ostracizing and expelling Hope Solo? Really? Did they toilet paper her house, too?)

This team handled a problem -- one that recurs with tedious frequency in sports all over the world, a player upset about being benched -- like junior high students stuck in an awkward part of life: too old to kick and scream, but too young to deal with matters coolly.

Then in the aftermath, the focus seemed to be on protecting an image rather than addressing root problems. Even the latest development, Solo's reintroduction to grace, smacks of PR damage control. Can everything really be all hunky-dory so soon? Protect the image at all costs!

A happy, shiny impression is great. It helped build awareness in the 1990s. And, yes, it's wonderful that young ladies have worthy heroines to emulate. But there must be balance. Image doesn't win a match; that's about smartly selected personnel, organized, fit and determined. It's still soccer, ya know?

So the U.S program stands at a crossroads: Grow up and move forward, accepting the occasional real-world black eyes, understanding that it can't always be about positive girl-power messages. Or cling to the collective pig-tailed youth, prioritizing the wholesome image, even at the expense of competitive matters.

Guarding that image can stifle constructive criticism. And that could frustrate efforts to address the real issue here: that the best-funded women's program in the world, culled from the biggest talent pool, was quite ordinary at the Women's World Cup.

U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, rarely prone to knee-jerk reactions, said in the end this was simply a personnel issue. He recognized the potential value of the moment but wished it didn't have to come attached to a crushing 4-0 loss.

"This was the first incident the women's national team had when there's been this type of notoriety over a negative," he said. "That's all part of the maturing process."

But is the program maturing? And if not, will people say so? While women's soccer in general progresses, the U.S. program may have reached a plateau, perhaps undermined by insular and protective attitudes. They can't continue to have things both ways: coveting elevated levels of coverage but enjoying the shield from routine scrutiny.

It's not just players and administrators. Fans dote on the Debbie Do-Right portrayal and the media insists on casting characters as faultless, athletic ingénues. Of course, no one can live up to these standards. And once Solo's clumsy effort (to say what everybody was thinking) tumbled out, nobody knew how to react.

Former U.S. coach Tony DiCicco, an ESPN soccer analyst, says the team has faced these problems before. The difference, he said, was having an issue "handled outside the family."

DiCicco doesn't believe the program requires evolution. He said the carefully cultivated persona fits this group splendidly. The culture of driven athletes who are concerned about passion, desire and an ever-unified front, he said, "is why America is in love with this team."

Fair enough. But will the adoration survive the next meltdown?

Solo surely erred when she called out a teammate. But the resulting friction seemed overcooked among players past and present, who never had to develop the thick skin required of most pro athletes.

This business of harping on the drama of forgiveness and disparaging comments is lame. It's a product of the protective culture, one that treats these women as angelic superheroes, not as athletes. Athletes are humans who, as we know, are fallen and imperfect.

These things do happen on competitive teams. Properly motivated athletes always think they can do better than the next guy. Omit Solo's derisive mention of Briana Scurry and she's on fairly common ground, an athlete in disagreement with the coach. Happens all the time. It's just that players usually sort it out. The team moves on. Fans get back to complaining about bad referees and the media gets back to complaining about, well, about pretty much everything.

Later, Abby Wambach began hammering away at how the episode galvanized team unity. Well, unity schmunity. What this group needs is better players, better coaching and new ideas to keep pace. Forget the shellacking from Brazil; this egg was cracked from the start.

A sense of entitlement seems to have infiltrated the program and its fans. The Girls of Summer don't lose! They just kick butt in soccer ... right after they rescue kittens, inspire little girls and drink the appropriate quantities of skimmed milk, if you believe the marketing mavens.

DiCicco says individually there is no sense of entitlement. He remembers Joy Fawcett walking into his office to ask if she was about to be cut. He needed 11 Joy Fawcetts, DiCicco told her. But her attitude was symbolic, he said: The players steadfastly believed in earning their places.

But the Nike-driven marketing machine may be creating an image the players aren't comfortable with, he said. Former U.S. player Julie Foudy agrees. And they both groaned about the new gold uniforms, which they say the players never felt uncomfortable wearing.

The sense of entitlement is sometimes institutionalized. For instance, the U.S. Soccer federation distributed a disingenuous "fact," one lapped up and amplified by compliant media: this silliness of a 51-game unbeaten streak.

Not true. The United States fell in a penalty-kick shootout to Germany 18 months ago in the Algarve Cup final. U.S. Soccer's own report said so: "It was the first loss for the U.S. women since Nov. 6, 2004..." And yet most media outlets continually trumpeted an inflated "streak," right up to its bitter Brazilian end.

Some illustrious names from the past seem to be aching from entitlement fever. They continue to grind axes because they are no longer in the fold. Never mind that they are athletes in winter, who must move on like everybody else.

Brandi Chastain has been critical of Greg Ryan. And on some points, she's absolutely right. The whole thing collapsed beneath the weight of an inane coaching gambit.

Indignation reigned over Ryan's daffy decision to bench a starting goalie in favor of a rusty backup. Indignation is fine. It helps keep us all in line. But where was the outcry when Ryan was hired? What were U.S. Soccer officials thinking -- that any ol' whistle could deliver the WWC trophy because, again, this team is entitled to it? The media fell asleep here.

Ryan's résumé hardly seemed befitting the highly successful program. There was a bit of success at Wisconsin -- more than 15 years ago. And why he left that job without another lined up, nobody really knows.

Ryan wasn't particularly successful later at SMU, where his contract was allowed to quietly expire. From there, he wasn't particularly successful at tiny Colorado College (enrollment: 2,000). Then he was a U.S. regional coach before becoming a full-time assistant to April Heinrichs.

The word on Ryan among those who have worked closely with him: a good soccer mind with unconventional ways on leadership and player management.

Still, few questioned Ryan's appointment in 2005. Not surprising since women's soccer flies below the radar outside the Olympics or Women's World Cup. Or perhaps it was simply deemed unwise to criticize anything associated with the splendid Girls of Summer.

Too bad. A little more scrutiny from players, coaches, media and fans might serve this program well in the long run.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.