The U.S. Women's National Team qualified for the finals of the Women's World Cup today, winning 1-0 over Italy to go through 2-0 on aggregate.This would once have been a "dog bites woman" story, but this year has been very different from the qualifiers the USWNT has played from all the way back to 1991.
For one thing, the team did not go through at the top of the CONCACAF group; that would be Canada, led by Christine Sinclair. Mexico, as always staffed with U.S. collegiate players from Mexico, went second.So the USWNT had first to defeat Costa Rica for third place, and then beat the sixith place European team - Italy - for a spot in the finals.
And the other real difference is that the U.S. doesn't have either an individual player or a group of players significantly better than the best in Europe or Brazil.
Instead, this U.S. team has showed itself to be; often flawed at the back, where missed communication has led to several ugly goals or good chances for the opposition; lacking the controlling midfield that was key to American success in 1991 and 1999, and especially sterile up front, where the only real consistently successful weapon has been Abby Wambach.I've talked about this before; Wambach is a genuinely great player, but her ability makes her a perfect target and she tends to be badly over-used by a U.S. midfield that lacks passing dexterity and control and has no real wingers. The U.S. tends to go hey-diddle-diddle right through the middle, where it exposes the defensive ineptitude of most of the rest of CONCACAF as well as the clumsy soccer played by most of the women's teams from South America, Africa and Asia.But the Germans have proved in the sternest fashion, by beating the Americans to the Cup the past eight years, that they have solved Wambach. Four years ago the brilliance of Marta combined with the tight marking that neutralized Wambach to allow Brazil to put a hurting on a badly coached, demoralized, and overage U.S. team.
The change has been in part because the northern Europeans always had, and the Brazilians have gained, the skills they needed to play world-class football. But in part is has been because the U.S. team that burst on the world like an explosion in 1991 was a truly brilliant squad made of uniquely gifted players. We only partially realized at the time how good the Ninety-oners were; Mia, Tiff, Loudy, Brandi, Joy, Kristine, Michelle, Brianna...we can see now that they have to be considered one of the great teams of history, and the modern USWNT looks smaller only in the long shadow they cast now that they are gone.Two goals over the hapless Italians is just sad. And the lack of goalscoring isn't an aberration; the US has had difficulty scoring against decent teams all year. This year the U.S. begins its campaign for the Women's World Cup in an unusual position, as a challenger, and not a favored one at that.
I will be cheering and hoping for glory in Germany. But this year I suspect my support will, like many other WNT fans, be tinged with more than a little nervous anxiety. For the American women will be landing in Germany next spring not as the Team of Destiny, but the Team of Doubts.