Here is the difference between the U.S. women's national team and the rest of the world: The United States heads into every Women's World Cup expecting to win it. If the Americans don't accomplish that goal, they leave feeling they have failed. That is the reality and the pressure that defines the U.S. team. The American women, however, would have it no other way. And given their funding, their support, the number of girls playing in this country, and the overall grassroots infrastructure, the U.S. women should be winning just about every World Cup.
Even though the United States has won the past three Olympics, the past three World Cups have proven to be elusive. Heading into Canada, 16 years have passed since the United States won the World Cup. And given the U.S. success at the Olympic level, that 16 years starts to feel like an anvil for most U.S. players.
"We are 100 percent aware that it has been 16 years," midfielder Shannon Boxx, who will play in her fourth World Cup, told me recently. "That pressure has been there in every World Cup. And every World Cup that pressure grows as we get further away from the last World Cup title.
"Now with such a good mix of old and young players, the excitement from the younger players overrides the pressure. They are just so excited to go out and do well and I don't know if they feel the same pressure as us older players. But as an older player, we have more drive to win because we simply haven't."
And so begins espnW's three-part series dissecting the past three World Cup disappointments and what the U.S. women learned to help them end the drought and hoist the trophy in Canada. Current U.S. team members Abby Wambach, Christie Rampone and Boxx shared their insight with espnW, as well as former U.S. stars Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Kate Markgraf. And I, of course, tried to summon my own hazy memories, having lived through each World Cup as either a player or a commentator. We begin with 2003, my final World Cup appearance.
Wambach doesn't hesitate when asked if she remembers the semifinal against Germany in the 2003 Women's World Cup.
"Yes, of course," the U.S. Soccer star said, "my [expletive] mark scored.
"You can put that in print, I own up to that. I was marking her and I didn't do my job."
Wambach will tell you it has haunted her for years. She will also tell you it's her fault the U.S. women -- and let's be clear that I was on that team and am also on the near post in that picture at the top of this page -- didn't win the World Cup in 2003. But Wambach is wrong.
The truth is, Germany was better than us that day. (It has taken me only 12 years to own up to that one.)
Result: Third place (beat Canada 3-1 in third-place match). Lost to Germany 3-0 in the semifinals; beat Norway 1-0 in quarters after going 3-0 in group play (wins over Sweden, Nigeria, North Korea).
What went wrong?
A lot of things. There were injuries up and down our U.S. roster, and distractions and heartache over learning that the Women's United Soccer League, our first pro league for women, would suspend operations one week before the Cup kickoff. There was a lot of pressure to try to replicate the same hype and momentum from 1999, despite smaller crowds and less promotion since the United States got the World Cup last-minute due to the SARS outbreak in China. Mental toughness was tested as much as every touch on the field.
A look at where things broke down:
Germany was more prepared: Germany took a 1-0 lead when Kerstin Garefrekes scored just 15 minutes into the semifinals, but the way Germany took the lead was a dagger, and the first thing out of nearly all of my former teammates' mouths. When a group of people recall a moment, especially one that happened 12 years ago, there are usually several different versions. Not in this case.
The U.S. women had worked on how to defend set pieces the day before in practice, determining who would mark up and who would play zone. "I remember Abby asking if [Germany] ever hit the ball near post," Boxx said. But the scouting report said no. In the moment, though, it didn't feel right to Wambach.
"I was supposed to be marking far post because Garefrekes was not supposed to go near post," Wambach said to me. "I was really confused in the moment, so much so that I asked you what to do. You said, 'Just mark her,' but Garefrekes beat me to the ball."
One goal might not determine a World Cup winner, but Germany also exploited us in other areas.
"Germany was more sophisticated than our game at that point, tactically speaking," former defender Markgraf said. "They figured out that if they just dropped back defensively enough, we would run out of options. Mentality, speed, everything that worked for us, if they could delay, delay and cut down angles enough, they had a higher percentage of winning."
Germany was simply better: In fact, it felt like the Germans had a 12th player on the field. They continually either pushed an outside back into the midfield, or had a midfielder (or what seemed like five midfielders) flying forward.
Hamm said it was the first game where it felt like the United States was playing a man down.
"At one point, I started counting their players," she said. "They were sending so many players through. I spent so much time playing defense. I would not say we had the run of play or the majority of possession."
Markgraf didn't sugarcoat it.
"We were getting our asses kicked in the run of play," she said. "The entire game we got manhandled. They were destroying us, playing right around us."
And while Germany's second and third goals both came in extra time after the United States started pushing numbers forward looking for the equalizer, Germany shut down one of the Americans' biggest strengths.
"I always felt that year that we mostly were winning games on set pieces. Abby was so dominant in the air. Teams hadn't figured her out yet," Markgraf continued. "But we never really clicked with scoring goals in the run of play. It was our weakness that entire year.
"In all honesty, Germany was better than us that year."
Don't wear blue socks and red jerseys ever again. After we lost to Germany, I noticed that we looked just like Norway (that is always the color combination the Norwegians wore) and maybe that was the reason we lost. The soccer gods were confused. But I digress.
The stress of juggling country and pro league: The U.S. women learned how hard it is to play in a professional league and go straight into a World Cup. Especially a league that we knew was struggling to stay afloat and we all felt a personal responsibility to keep alive.
And although these current U.S. players do not have the stress of a dying league, they do have the added toil on the mind and body that dual loyalties bring. You want to be there for your pro team and NWSL, but you also know from past experience that dedicating most of this year to the U.S. national team is a good idea.
The need for a residency-type atmosphere: The only good news to come out of that next year in 2004? Without a league, we were able to spend six months together in Los Angeles at a "residency training." We had one focus -- to be the best in the world at the Olympics -- and we achieved just that. This year, these U.S. players did not have an official "residency" and home base leading up to the World Cup, but they essentially were together since December at various tournaments and training camps.
Trust your instincts: Scouting reports are great, but at the end of the day, instincts might matter more. And again, the conversation goes back to Garefrekes' goal.
"Abby asked the question, she saw it," Hamm said. "You see things in the flow of the game. She saw something. Trust your gut."
From failure blooms success: Wambach remembers waking up sick to her stomach from that game "for weeks and weeks."
"I felt responsible," she said. "After '99, it being the next World Cup in the U.S., regardless of circumstances, I was the one piece that was different from '99."
But then Wambach added this: "That World Cup ended up being a good thing as that failure definitely shaped the success of my career later on.
"I remember [the German players] running around so happy for so long. [U.S. coach April Heinrichs] saw me watching. She said, 'Come on, let's go inside,' and I said, 'No, I want to remember this.'"
Also good to note: Don't piss off Abby Wambach.