Posted by: mdegeorge | July 10, 2011

A win as American as apple pie

The excues were readymade.

A questionable foul leads to an automatic red card. A tremendous stop on a penalty is dubiously nullified, giving the opponent another opportunity that fate simply won’t allow to be missed. A valiant effort to stay level despite being shorthanded is wiped away in a moment of glory by the arch-antagonist in this plot in which the linesman’s flag inexplicably remains at her side.

The reasons why the U.S. women’s national team was unceremoniously dumped from the World Cup were there for the taking, for the announcers, the pundits, the disappointed fans. They were there for everyone but the tam itself.

Hope Solo. Courtesy of Creative Commons.

Instead, the skilled and tenacious group of women, no doubt tired of incessantly hearing how their generation had yet to taste the World Cup glory that so defined their predecessors, refused to have a pair of unfortunate refereeing decisions and one no-call send them out of the tournament. The Americans have reserved the right to do to that, i

n a week’s time, as the new world champions.

What the Americans managed to do in Dresden Sunday in their win over Brazil, 2-2 (5-3 PK) was nothing short of miraculous, no matter how often or recklessly that term is overused. They weathered storm after storm. They managed to absorb waves of pressure provided by one of the best attacking teams in the world with just 10 players after Rachel Buehler’s questionable dismissal after 66 minutes. They managed to mentally survive the shock of seeing goalkeeper Hope Solo magnificently keep out the ensuing penalty off the foot of Cristiane only to have it called back rather mysteriously and retaken flawlessly by Marta. They managed to muster one final chance, quite literally at the death of the game, to have a long inch-perfect cross by Megan Rapinoe find the head of Abby Wambach – not the fist of the onrushing keeper or the head of a would-be defender – that the veteran striker clinically finished as if she was alone on the training pitch.

And through it all, they managed to keep their nerve and coolly slot home all five of their penalty kick attempts to advance to the semifinals.

This tournament has in many ways been an attempt at redemption. It may seem a silly term to apply to the defending Olympic champions, but the story throughout this tournament has been chronicling the attempts of the once-unquestioned power of women’s soccer to reclaim its lost World Cup throne. A 12-year drought means the next generation of stars – the generation of Solo, Wambach, Heather O’Reilly, Carli Lloyd, Shannon Boxx et al. – has never taken home the soccer world’s biggest prize, in some ways failing to carry the mantle left by their predecessors and idols in the greatest generation American women’s soccer has ever seen.

With the upset of two-time defending world champions Germany on their home turf in the quarters Saturday, the U.S. entered Sunday’s match knowing that at day’s end, only one of the top three teams in the world would remain in the competition. The only thing standing between them and a wide open path to the championship would be the same team that brutalized them 4-0 four years ago to send them out in the semifinals in China.

What transpired then in Dresden Sunday wasn’t just the banishment of demons brought on by inattentive refereeing. In was the first step in a purge of perceptions and stereotypes that run much deeper.

In Wambach’s goal and subsequent penalty conversion in the shootout, the 31-year-old not only struck a blow against those questioning her fitness and goal-scoring touch throughout this tournament. The striker, whose goal-scoring record makes the argument for her as the greatest player in the history of the program more plausible than it may seem to be, is the bridge between American soccer greatness past and present. The lack – to date – of the appellation “World Cup Champion” next to her name resonates more loudly than anything she could do on the field.

In and of itself, the fact that a veteran striker with a history of injury issues could rise to meet the cross and the occasion after over 120 minutes on the pitch is remarkable. What she had to shed to rise to the pinnacle and finish her chance, much more than merely yellow-and-green-clad defender, makes it almost unthinkable.

The same can be said for Solo. Her dominance as one of the world’s best keepers makes many forget the tirade she launched four years ago after the loss to Brazil that served as an embarrassment to the entire program.

But a contained Solo was on top of her game Sunday, stopping two – though only one counted – of the six penalty kick attempts to come her way in a stellar performance. After being wrong-footed by Cristiane and Marta to start the shootout, she guessed perfectly and was at full stretch to deny a pedestrian attempt by Daiane that gave the U.S the opening after Boxx, Lloyd and Wambach had opened with goals each. Rapinoe’s turn at the spot was nonchalantly slotted home before Ali Krieger blasted the winner by a helpless Andreia to seal the victory.

Much like Wambach’s goal, the exploits of Solo and her teammates have given the United States a reprieve, a second chance at the tournament that continues Wednesday against France.

It’s hard to believe that the squad led by Solo and Wambach, walking arm-in-arm off the pitch Sunday, an American flagged clutched in the hand of the speechless striker, won’t take full advantage of their opening yet again.

Perhaps finally, that will be the identity for this team. It’s likely they won’t find an excuse not to take it.

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