Brazil a side note to real U.S. goal

Now that America's collective heart rate has returned to normal, let's splash our faces with a bit of reality.

As impressive, exhilarating and inspirational as it was to see the U.S. women's national soccer team overcome poor officiating and Marta's brilliance, that victory will ring hollow if the women's team doesn't win the World Cup.

Call me a sourpuss (or something stronger) if you like. Accuse me of not living in the moment. But in our rush to categorize where Abby Wambach's breathtaking goal fits into American soccer history -- or sports history, for that matter -- shouldn't we at least acknowledge that the women have something much bigger at stake?

The women's win over Brazil wasn't in the same arena -- yes, I'm mixing and matching here -- as the men's win over Algeria in last summer's World Cup in South Africa. That was a watershed moment for the U.S. men, who needed to show they had progressed beyond clamoring for international respect.

The women, though, have long had the world's respect, even though they haven't won the World Cup since captivating the country in spectacular fashion in 1999.

The USWNT was a favorite heading into this tournament, even though Germany had won the past two World Cups. Had the U.S. been unable to topple Brazil, the players would not have deserved a pat on the back for an enthusiastic try but rather criticism for not capitalizing on their talents.

Whatever feelings of patriotism the USWNT has stirred, this World Cup isn't about exceeding expectations but rather living up to them.

"This isn't good enough," Wambach told reporters after the Brazil match. "We haven't won anything. We won a game, and that's it. We want to win the World Cup, and that takes two more games. It's gonna take a really good performance against France. They're a great team; they have many threats."

Fans and commentators are struggling to comprehend what this Brazil game means for women's sports and female athletes, but maybe we're getting ahead of ourselves and in the process missing the obvious.

Have we considered that maybe the women's national team's victory over Brazil doesn't mean anything at all?

Come to think of it, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

When it comes to women's sports, we have a habit of trying to use every victory by a female athlete or team as a barometer for how we feel about women's sports overall.

Yes, it was marvelous to see the women's team seize the country's attention. It was fantastic that the replay of the USA-Brazil match garnered an overnight rating of 2.6 on ESPN, which meant that more people watched the Sunday's match than the NBA draft (which drew a 2.5 rating).

But the women's claim on the World Cup in 1999 felt more like an arrival. That was a renaissance, because our awareness of women as fierce competitors was heightened and in many cases awakened as many fans watched the sport for the first time.

This quarterfinal win, however, is merely a continuation of the standards established by Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain. They started a different era in women's soccer. Women's sports still must fight for attention in today's crowded sports marketplace, but our appreciation for female athletes and women's sports in general has grown considerably since Chastain joyously whipped her shirt off in 1999.

So we have to resist stuffing the 2011 team into a cute, feel-good package. Obviously there's nothing wrong with feeling proud of the resiliency this team showed in beating Brazil, being awed by goalkeeper Hope Solo's poise despite extreme pressure or marveling at how perfect Megan Rapinoe's cross had to be for Wambach to deliver a flawless header.

But although their effort was worthy of the highest platitudes, let's not forget that the U.S. women have finished third in the three World Cups they haven't won.

For the No. 1-ranked team in the world, advancing to the semifinals should be a given. And if they lose to France, there will be nothing feel-good about that.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.