After Upset, U.S. Women's Soccer May Be On Equal Footing With Everyone Else

Brazil's Cristiane celebrates after U.S. midfielder Leslie Osborne, No. 12, deflects the ball into her own goal to give Brazil a 1-0 lead in the 20th minute.
Brazil's Cristiane celebrates after U.S. midfielder Leslie Osborne, No. 12, deflects the ball into her own goal to give Brazil a 1-0 lead in the 20th minute. (Greg Baker - AP)
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 28, 2007

HANGZHOU, China, Sept. 27 -- The U.S. women's national soccer team spent months at a residency camp in Southern California, competed overseas and played a series of exhibitions to tune up for the World Cup. Unlike many women's teams, it had the support of the sport's U.S. governing body, which pumped millions of dollars into the program and, in the absence of a professional league, provided salaries for the core group of players.

Along the way, the top-ranked Americans stretched their unbeaten streak to 51 games and forged an identity following the retirement of Mia Hamm and the team's other stars of the past.

But all that money and preparation could not offset the fact that the rest of the world has caught up, and in some cases surpassed the United States in the sport of women's soccer, which it had pioneered.

On Thursday night, under a full moon in a picturesque lakeside city about 120 miles southwest of Shanghai, the U.S. women's soccer team suffered the worst defeat in its 22-year history, a 4-0 loss to Brazil in the World Cup semifinals before 47,818 at Hangzhou Dragon Stadium. It was the low point of a disappointing tournament for the United States, which labored to win its first-round group before putting together a quality second half to defeat England in the quarterfinals on Saturday.

Since launching itself into stardom with its 1999 World Cup title at the sold-out Rose Bowl, the U.S. national team has captured only one of the last four major championships in women's international soccer -- the 2004 Olympic gold medal.

"We are not where we were 10 years ago," U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said. "It's not because we are not better; it's because everyone else is rapidly investing in the game. Am I concerned? No. We lost in the World Cup semifinals. That's very disappointing, but we'll keep going."

There are many reasons for the increased parity. The United States was one of the first countries to openly embrace the women's game, and therefore for years had a huge head start on the rest of the world. But other countries only now are beginning to catch up, and are doing so namely because soccer -- the men's game -- is such a huge part of their culture.

The trajectory of the U.S. women's soccer program in many aspects mirrors that of men's international basketball and baseball, other sports formerly dominated by the Americans. The result here does not bode well for the U.S. team heading into next summer's Olympics in China. Nor does it help build momentum for a proposed professional league starting in 2009 to replace the Women's United Soccer Association, which suspended operations in 2003 after three seasons.

The United States had lost to Brazil just once in 22 previous meetings, but on this humid evening, the Brazilians were superior in every facet of the game. The gap in technical skill was glaring. While the U.S. team's play was structured and unimaginative, the Brazilians danced with the ball at their feet and performed with the free-flowing rhythm that has made their men's team so successful and famous.

A U.S. mistake was responsible for the first goal, as midfielder Leslie Osborne headed the ball into her own net while attempting to clear a corner kick. But the other goals were created with flair and ingenuity, including the final strike with about 10 minutes remaining by world player of the year Marta, in which she flipped the ball to herself while rounding defender Tina Ellertson, cut away from another defender and coolly smashed a shot into the lower corner.

The Americans trailed 2-0 after 27 minutes, and almost all hope of a comeback was extinguished just before halftime, when midfielder Shannon Boxx received her second yellow card on a questionable call and was ejected, leaving the United States short-handed for the remainder of the game.

"We're just trying to keep our heads above water," team captain Kristine Lilly said.

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