No one saw this coming. Not at this World Cup.
Not after France picked this U.S. team apart in February. Not while Jill Ellis stubbornly persisted with Lauren Holiday and Morgan Brian alone in center midfield with Carli Lloyd shoved wide.
Not even after the round of 16 win against Colombia, in which the USA looked indifferent in beating an inexperienced team. Not with the USA persisting in playing a predictable direct style.
Not with the sense that something was wrong deep in the roots of this team, with the latest Hope Solo legal developments likely far less of an issue than the team’s institutionalized favoritism toward established players.
Maybe they’d get lucky against the winner of the France-Germany game, fans thought. At least the defense was playing really well, so if they could just get a goal, they could get to the final, likely against a Japanese team that hasn’t looked like itself.
No one expected the USA to outplay Germany by a considerable margin. And no one expected the USA to outscore Japan by such a wide margin, burying the world champions with a 16-minute outburst after kickoff.
None of the cliches apply. They didn’t answer their critics — they won by doing (surely unintentionally) what the critics wanted in the short term, and the long-term problems are still there. They didn’t win by sheer force of will — they won with intelligent soccer, mesmerizing the German midfield and carving up Japan’s defense with clever plays like Lloyd’s game-opening run on a corner kick and her audacious drive from midfield.
We may not fully comprehend what happened over this month in Canada until someone writes a tell-all book. How this dysfunctional team could suddenly produce three majestic games defies easy explanation. Did something happen in the locker room? Was Jill Ellis always planning to switch things up as needed even after looking so inflexible for months? Did Abby Wambach, as some have suggested, bench herself?
We’ll solve all the long-term problems with women’s soccer some other day. For now, we have a stunning victory to admire and a lot to celebrate:
– The U.S. media have grown up. All the talk of “Hope Solo this and Abby Wambach that” gave way to intelligent dissections of tactics and technique. Defenders like Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston got their due.
– Even this team’s biggest detractors have to smile at the thought of the likes of Sauerbrunn and Meghan Klingenberg, overlooked for so long but just plugging away through the death of WPS and the birth of the NWSL, getting World Cup medals and playing so well along the way.
– And then there’s Wambach. You might question much of what she has done or said in the past year. But she is still one of the five best players in women’s soccer history and someone who has fought for her sport. Now her demons have been slain, and her legacy is complete.
The future begins tomorrow. U.S. Soccer needs to take a good look at what went wrong and what went right. And they need to make sure people get out and support the league that is the USA’s only chance for keeping up with the powerhouse Europeans and staying ahead of emerging teams elsewhere.
The “Victory Tour” should be a series of warm welcomes as these players — and a lot of international players who excelled in this tournament — return to their NWSL teams.
Enjoy. Celebrate. And get back to work.