December 31, 2008
by Charles Cuttone
USWNT was 2008’s best overlooked story
The tv shows and sports magazines have been filled with the top stories of 2008. From the New York Giants winning the Super bowl to the Philadelphia Phillies winning the World Series. From Tiger Woods’ amazing performance in winning the U.S. Open on a bad leg to Michael Phelps and his eight Olympic Gold Medals.
All great stories.
But there are others that have been overlooked.
For instance, a team that suffered its worst and most humiliating defeat on the world stage a year ago, with fallout that led to the shunning of a player and the firing of a coach.
That team, under a coach with a one-year contract, loses its best player to a broken leg days before the Olympics, then puts on a lackluster performance in the opening game and is immediately written off.
But the players pull together and start reeling off wins, 1-0 against Japan, 4-0 against New Zealand, 2-1 over Canada and 4-2 over Japan. Along the way, the shunned player redeems herself and a player who was close to being cut from the team winds up its leading scorer.
Then, the team gains its revenge for the devastating loss a year earlier with a 1-0 win in overtime to capture the gold medal.
Somehow most of the media missed that one. No late night chit-chats with Bob Costas, not a single top 10 with Dave. No banter on the Sports Reporters or a behind the scenes look on Outside the Lines or Real Sports.
But that’s ok. We’ll keep this one for ourselves. It’s that good.
The U.S. Women’s National Team, long the dominant power in the world game, were humiliated by Brazil in the semi-final of the 2007 World Cup, losing 4-0, after coach Greg Ryan switched goalkeepers and played veteran Briana Scurry in place of regular starter Hope Solo. The Brazilians danced around the aging Scurry, netting a pair of goals while Abby Wambach was having an injury tended to.
After the game, Solo told the press she would have made those saves against the Brazilians, and her teammates basically voted her out of the World Cup. Not long after the debacle, Ryan was fired.
Enter Pia Sundhage, the first foreigner ever to coach the U.S. Women. She’s given a one- year contract going into the Olympic year. The implication is “win or else.”
With veteran Kristine Lilly sitting out the year to have a baby, and all the other veterans of the team now retired, the U.S. youngsters respond to Sundhage and play inspired soccer leading up to the Olympics. Even so, they are hardly the favorites. Then Wambach breaks her leg in the last warm-up before the games.
The opening game of the Olympics, a 2-0 loss against Norway, was perhaps the worst game ever played by the U.S. Women. The few media outlets that noticed at all were writing the team off.
But Carli Lloyd helped the U.S. bounce back by scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win over Japan.
Then four players got in on the scoring to rout the Kiwis. Heather O’Reilly stunned the stadium with a goal less than a minute in and Amy Rodriguez made it 2-0 just before the half. Angela Hucles, who had been traded away by Sundhage five years earlier when with the Boston Breakers of the WUSA, and had barely made the Olympic team, scored the first of her four goals in the tournament, and Lindsey Tarpley added another.
Hucles added a goal in the final group game against Canada, and Natasha Kai came off the bench in the second half to score the game winner in overtime, assuring the U.S. a place in the medal round.
In the semifinal against Japan, Hucles led the way with two goals to give her four in the tournament as Lori Chalupny and O'Reilly added one apiece.
Bring on the rematch.
Even though they were outplayed by Brazil, the U.S. got a dramatic goal some seven minutes into extra time from Lloyd to seal the win.
Hope Solo, the ostracized goalkeeper, was magnificent, catching or blocking everything sent her way, including a tremendous game-saving block of a shot by the world’s best player, Marta, in the 77th minute.
"I don't even think about that, whatever I said last year," she said. "I am just enjoying this moment right now. I feel great. I just won a damn gold medal."
Was there a better story in sports?