<
>

U.S. women's soccer has head start

Abby Wambach was at a loss for words. For that she could be forgiven. Breathless, battered, blown away, she was like so many modern athletes -- immediately miked up and required to provide immediate context for the impossible.

"I think that is a perfect example of what this country is about, what the history of this team has always been. We never give up," she said, moments after the U.S. women's team had pulled off the impossible against Brazil. Wambach, surely, had been through an American history course or two.

Her coach might not have, but she sensed it too.

"This American attitude of pulling everything together and bringing out the best performance in each other is contagious," said Swedish-born Pia Sundhage.

The coach is correct, in a sense. American women's soccer, and its history of success, is a tale of pulling everything together, but this win is also a reminder that until recently, so few other nations have pulled anything together, much less tried to raise their development system.

Consider the conquered.

Brazil's Marta is the Lionel Messi of women's soccer, the almost unrivaled star of the current women's game. As a child in Brazil, her brilliance was evident early -- and discouraged. She was told by her brothers not to play, the way protective brothers might discourage a young American girl with aspirations of playing linebacker next to Brian Urlacher. Linebackers don't make ideal wives.

Marta was discovered by chance playing in mostly men's youth pickup games. By contrast, Mia Hamm was playing for the U.S. national team in 1987, when Marta was just 1 year old. Nurtured by an American system that offered youth leagues that fed into middle school, club competition, high school athletics and the NCAA, Hamm dominated a sport that in the U.S. doesn't challenge any preconceived notion of machismo.

When Hamm won her first Women's World Cup in 1991 -- the first one played -- Brazil entered as a disorganized mess. Despite having churned out one-named male superstars for decades, the birthplace of Pelé was quickly eliminated. Rival Argentina -- another men's superpower, still reveling in the reign of Diego Maradona and the "Hand of God" -- didn't even field an organized national women's team until 1993.

So while the U.S. has already seen the rise and fall and rise again of women's professional leagues, with the usual naysayers' suspicions that they can't remain economically viable, it's not a coincidence that Marta makes her professional living here, scoring goals and cashing checks for a team in western New York. In her own country, there still isn't the soccer infrastructure that nurtured the talents of Hamm, Brandi Chastain or even a preteen Wambach a full two decades ago.

While Brazil, Argentina and even traditional European soccer powers like Italy and Spain pile up trophies in men's soccer -- even dropping some under buses -- a segment of their populations is still coming to grips with the fact that women can play "football" with and as well as many of the boys.

So that American spirit, that stubborn American attitude? It's not some cousin of war bonds. It's not just a national purpose, or some battlefield metaphor. It's based on the simple fact that we placed value on women's sports, even the "masculine" pursuit of soccer, a long time before many of our rivals gave it notice. Our success isn't just divine -- it echoes an old Smith Barney commercial: "We earned it." You can quibble with the level, but America invested.

American women's exceptionalism in soccer is a relative outlier, especially compared to the men (as if our top male athletes play soccer as a first calling like they do in Brazil, Argentina, Germany or England; imagine "A beautiful cross from Patrick Peterson to LeBron James for the clinching header!"). The dominance is a result of spirit, yes, but also of a head start. Say what you want about opportunities for female athletes in this country, argue for better exposure, point to financial imbalances. But compared to much of the rest of the world, we're light-years ahead.

Which isn't a dis of Wambach, or the newly converted Sundhage.

Just as the world got better in Olympic basketball to the point the U.S. fielded the Dream Team, so it will in soccer. The golds are the same color, but they've also gotten tougher to earn. Is that so bad?

Good drama? More like good ratings.

Chris Sprow is a senior editor for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN Insider. Follow him on Twitter.

MORE COMMENTARY »