weight off their shoulders

Abby Wambach Celebrates

Legacy and expectations are tough companions, particularly so during the pressure cooker that is a World Cup.

Ask anyone on the US Women’s National Team, and I’m sure they’d agree. Living up to the prior greatness of US teams of the past is a heavy burden, one that’s taken a long, tedious 16 years to fully realize.

It’s not like these are a group of push overs or anything either. Morgan, Rapinoe, Solo, Wambach and company represent one of the most talented core of players the American women’s program has ever had at their disposal at one time. And even if they’re not the most talented, they at least take the crown as the “most marketable” group the US women have ever had.

Yet even for names of their stature, the glory achieved 1991 and 1999 still loomed large and proved exceptionally difficult to replicate. But why?

The aforementioned legacy issues obviously play a part. Hamm, Akers and Lilly are giants of the game. Too, winning two World Cups means you’re expected to win every World Cup. Mediocrity is something that American women’s soccer fans — and sponsors for that matter — tolerate very well. And while it’s hard to call finishing at least third in every World Cup since ’99 “mediocre”, as famous American Ricky Bobby is known to say, if you’re not first, you’re last. 

But high expectations coupled with the gut wrenching loss to Japan in the final of the 2011 World Cup; that’s a tricky combination. And it was clear that approaching Sunday’s 2015 Final, the insecurities from each were still very much at play. Sure, the girls had an Olympic gold medal to console themselves with after having their hearts ripped out four years ago. But as anyone who knows half a thing about soccer will tell you, there’s really no substitute to hoisting the World Cup trophy.

However, it wasn’t just those feelings that had me doubting anyone that named the US as a favorite prior to the blowout they dished out to Japan on Sunday.

Going into the tournament, it seemed like a poor timing as it felt like they were heading into a stage of transition in their evolution. The older generation not quite out the door, and the younger generation not quite running things yet either.

Take Abby Wambach for example: she’s unquestionably one of the best women’s players ever with an international goal scoring record that is the envy of every other player — female or male. But while Abby is obviously still capable of contributing and impacting a match in a big way, she also clearly isn’t the player she was a few years ago. Signs of her decline include not being as active off the ball, not getting as involved in the build up play, infrequently chasing down opposing players, and even opting to take off the 2015 NWSL season to keep her legs “fresh” for the World Cup. It’s why many, myself included, had hoped manager Jill Ellis would limit her minutes and use her as more of an impact sub — and we luckily did eventually see that in the later stages of their run to the cup.

I’m not just picking on Wambach here, by the way. Solo, though still great between the sticks, has an ever-growing cloud of controversy gathering over her and appears to be one the US Soccer Federation would like to part ways with. Shoot, Shannon Boxx and Christie Rampone are nearly old enough to apply for Social Security. Another seven players are 29 or older.

And yet as they persist with the older players who have proven themselves, the young players — the next generation that will carry the burden of expectation into the next World Cup — haven’t really been given the chance to break through. Prior to the semifinals, Ellis had us all questioning her abilities as she struggled to find a way to balance youth with experience.

Plus, Morgan looked pretty rusty coming off a long injury lay off, Leroux seemed incapable of raising her level of play, and Ellis’ tactics often looked one dimensional and lacking in creativity. The way the US women looked in their first four matches of the tournament appeared to do nothing but validate my reasons for being skeptical about their chances in Canada.

Luckily, the ladies weren’t buying into mine or anybody else’s skepticism.

Riding a surprisingly air-tight defense, the US weathered the group stages as their offense struggled to shake off rust and poor form. That defense was in turn lead by a dynamic centerback pairing: the wise and experienced of Becky Sauerbrun, and the powerful and versatile Julie Johnston. Together with the industrious Meghan Klingenberg and some (predictably) big saves from Hope, that defense dragged the US forward out of a Group of Death, past the plucky Colombian’s and a doe-faced Chinese side before the offense truly found their feet against Germany in the semifinals.

And once they did find their feet, the goals, they did come. And in plenty.

The stylish, efficient performance was what we many had been asking for from this team and it’s manager. Wambach, despite her incredible desire to finally lift a World Cup, was relegated to bench. This had two effects on the USWNT’s play: 1) it allowed them to drop an extra player into midfield to clog things up against technically proficient teams like Germany and Japan, and 2) also allowed them to create a little more moving forward without Abby being the central focus of the attack. Alex Morgan seemed to recover a little more of her dynamism as a result. And the defense just kept chugging along.

The end result: the weight of 1991 and 1999 has finally been lifted. And I was delightfully proven wrong over my pre-tournament concerns: this team did have all the right pieces to come out on top of what was easily the deepest pool of competition that the US women’s national team has ever faced in a World Cup.

But how did they overcome the pressure of expectations that previous incarnations of this team have struggled to meet?

Their own belief. The ability to adjust their game plan and find a better way forward. And maybe just a hair of luck.

Remember the missed penalty from Šašić against Germany in the semifinal? Though the Yanks had started that game well, the tide really turned when the Germans didn’t take that opportunity. Was that luck — which had evaded them on the scoring end — the x-factor? Maybe, maybe not. But they never looked like they were going to lose afterward either. And sometimes it’s something like that which can change the course of the rest of that story that follows.

So the pressure is now off their shoulders, the monkey has now been removed from their backs and that long-awaited third star has been added to the ladies’ crests as a reward.

Winning the World Cup felt amazing — as a self-professed bigger fan of the men’s program, it surprised me how much joy I got out of it — celebrating with thousands of fans here in Cincinnati, and millions more across the country on social media. TV ratings were through the roof. Soccer’s popularity is sure to get another boost here domestically.

But don’t forget: that pressure will be come back, younger stars will get older and need to move on, and we’ll be doing this song and dance all over again in 2019 in France.

And I, for one, can’t wait.

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