In a classic case of "the darkest hour is just before dawn," the shambles of the U.S. women's team in the 2007 Women's World Cup has given rise to a triumphant turn in the spotlight as the squad embarks on a multi-city tour as Olympic gold medalists.
Perhaps things had to get that bad last year -- with then-coach Greg Ryan's bizarre goalkeeper switch during the World Cup, the ensuing 4-0 loss to Brazil, goalkeeper Hope Solo's infamous outburst and the media storm around all the events -- for them to get better in 2008. The U.S. women's team had won so regularly for so long that many took good results for granted. Snapped to attention by the scandal, fans and the U.S. Soccer Federation realized the style of the team had become staid, reactive and dependent on only a few players.
It's doubtful that just a loss here or there would have jolted USSF complacency enough to bring in the team's first foreign coach, Pia Sundhage. Her irrepressible love for the game, her tactical acumen and her simple request for players to lay aside personal differences for the good of the team revived the program.
"Last year was an upsetting ending," midfielder Carli Lloyd said. "A lot of things happened. This whole year, in general, has been very different."
Sundhage shook up the roster by holding camps and selecting players who were not only skilled, but displayed a true passion for the game. She entrusted younger players with more games, and emphasized a crisper possession style that helped the team overcome the loss of key players to injury just before the Olympic Games started.
|U.S. women's schedule|
|U.S. vs. Ireland
Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia
8 p.m. ET
U.S. vs. Ireland
Giants Stadium; East Rutherford, N.J.
7:30 p.m. ET
U.S. vs. Ireland
Toyota Park; Bridgeview, Ill.
8 p.m. ET
"Everyone was doubting us," Lloyd said. "We were the underdogs, and that made it more special."
Most of all, Sundhage kept her poise when the team faltered in the group round of play, falling 2-0 to Norway, the only other country to ever claim Olympic gold. Even though many wrote the U.S. off before they faced Brazil in the final, Sundhage kept her players motivated.
"You have to believe you're going to win," midfielder Lindsay Tarpley said. "The whole team had that feeling, and I think that helped us win."
Now the players are embarking on a promotional tour that not only celebrates their gold-medal achievement, but their ability to adapt and improve, their reformed sense of team unity and new job security for their coach. Sundhage was granted only a year-long contract by the USSF, with a possible extension based almost entirely on the results of the Olympic tournament. That is almost certain to happen now, as Sundhage's charges have completed the mission to secure the gold medal.
"It's been great having Pia," Lloyd said. "Her passion for the game is so contagious. She's really brought this team together."
Lloyd and her teammates are now engaged in another battle -- to try to make women's soccer a member of the upper echelon of professional sports, instead of a sport that gains attention only during the Olympic or World Cup cycle. The current 10-game tour (starting with three games against Ireland) is seen as a launching pad for Women's Professional Soccer which launches in 2009.
"We'll be playing a lot of games on a more consistent basis," Lloyd said of the new league. "I'm looking forward to it, along with everyone else."
Ireland will be the U.S.'s opponent for the opening games of the tour, reuniting the players after a few weeks off in which to ponder their achievement. The uncertainty of whether media attention will hold, or whether the new league will survive, will be put aside while the women do what they do best -- play soccer.
"Of course, when you come home with a gold medal, everything is good," Lloyd said.
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.