POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 19, 2011
FRANKFURT, Germany » Once the Americans get over the disappointment of coming up just short at the Women's World Cup, they'll find plenty of reasons for optimism.
The U.S. soccer team pulled together amid a series of challenges that, just a few years ago, would have broken it apart. And while the illustrious careers of captain Christie Rampone, Shannon Boxx and maybe Abby Wambach are nearing their end, Lauren Cheney, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe proved in Germany they are more than able successors.
There's also another major title to be won at next summer's London Olympics, and qualifying starts in just a few months.
"It's just unfortunate, just a bummer," Carli Lloyd said after the Americans were stunned by Japan in a riveting final Sunday night, losing 3-1 in penalty kicks after twice blowing leads in a 2-2 tie. "But there's another World Cup in four years."
For some. The majority of the team will remain intact through London, but Rampone (36) and Boxx (34) are likely to call it quits after that. Wambach said it's too early to say what she'll do, but she is 31, and her body is showing the wear and tear from the fearless playing style that has earned her third place on the all-time World Cup scoring list with 13 goals.
Wambach passed Michelle Akers (12) for top U.S. honors with her header in the 104th minute Sunday, her fourth goal of the tournament.
"I'm not thinking about that right now," Wambach said when asked about her future. "I just want to spend some time with my teammates. This has been an emotional roller coaster ... and the Olympics are right around the corner. We'll move on."
Part of what has always made the U.S. so strong is the smooth transition from one generation to another, and the U.S. might have its most promise since the days of Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain.
Hope Solo, winner of the Golden Glove as the tournament's top goalkeeper, is in the prime of her career at 29. Morgan and Cheney, both just 22, each finished the tournament with two goals. Cheney also had three assists, while Morgan had one. Rapinoe displayed the accuracy and touch on the flanks so critical in coach Pia Sundhage's desire for a possession-based offense, and has the energy and spunk to shoulder the burden of being the face of the team behind Wambach.
No team found a way to contain speedy Heather O'Reilly, who makes a nice complement to Rapinoe on the opposite side of the field. Lloyd seemed to gain confidence in directing the offense as the tournament wore on, having one of her best games against Japan.
That's not to say there aren't issues.
The Americans achieved cult status with their grit and resilience in Germany, coming back to beat Brazil in the quarterfinals in a thrilling match, and then grinding down France. But as entertaining as they may be, the Americans have been making things harder on themselves than they need to be for almost a year now.
They were upset by Mexico in regional qualifying, forced to beat Italy in a playoff to get the very last spot in Germany. They dropped their first game of the season, to Sweden, then lost to England for the first time in 22 years — so long ago Morgan hadn't even been born yet. After winning their first two games in Germany handily, they lost to Sweden, the first U.S. loss ever in World Cup group play.
"In the past, we'd always won everything," Rampone said. "Those losses made our team what it is today. We need each other and you feel that, from the locker room to the time we step on the field."
But the Americans need more than a can-do attitude to keep pace in a game that is improving and evolving.
Sundhage wants the U.S. to play a possession-oriented style similar to the one Japan and France worked to near perfection in Germany, saying the traditional American game plan of grinding opponents down on defense and sending long balls up to the forwards is too predictable. The offense should develop through the midfield, not start up front.
The style also helps on defense. Opponents can't score when the Americans are keeping the ball for large chunks of the game.
"I think of it as a nice hybrid of the way the U.S. national team used to play and the way that the game is evolving into, much like the men's game, a possession, Barcelona-esque style," Wambach said. "It hasn't been without troubles. It's sometimes gotten the best of us because we have some players, like myself, who are old school and like to get the ball in a more physical, direct style. And when things aren't going well, I like to go back to what I know."
When it works, though, it is a sight to behold. The Americans looked like a cat toying with a mouse for much of the first half of the final, reeling defenders in only to make the ball disappear with a deft flick or smooth pass to a teammate. Japan's confusion and frustration gave the Americans wide-open spaces in front of the goal, and they easily could have been up 4-0 at halftime.
But they weren't, done in by an inability to finish that's plagued them all year long. If the Americans had converted only a handful of the chances they squandered in the tournament, that Brazil thriller wouldn't have been nearly as dramatic and they, not the Japanese, would have been celebrating late into the night Sunday.
"I don't blame anybody," Wambach said. "We had so many chances."
And they will again, starting in London.