Editor's note: Sixteen years have passed since the American women last won the World Cup. They lost in the semifinals in 2003 and 2007 and in the 2011 championship game. In Part 2 of our three-part series, we continue to dissect the last three World Cup disappointments and what the U.S. women learned to help them end the drought and hoist the trophy in Canada. Click here to view our 2003 breakdown.
Abby Wambach sighed. So did Kate Markgraf, Kristine Lilly and Christie Rampone.
Ask U.S. women's soccer players past and present to talk about the 2007 Women's World Cup -- you know the one, when U.S. coach Greg Ryan benched Hope Solo and the squad suffered its worst loss ever in U.S. women's national team history -- and sighs, groans and growls are typically the starting point.
But before we begin dissecting that World Cup, some historical perspective: The U.S. women's soccer team had won the Olympics in 2004 (after losing in the semifinals of the 2003 World Cup), and many of us self-professed "old bags" had retired after the 2004 Games. Mia Hamm, Joy Fawcett, Brandi Chastain and I were no longer playing. It was a different team, a different coach and a different time.
Result: Third place (beat Norway 4-1 in third-place match). Lost to Brazil 4-0 in the semifinals; beat England 3-0 in quarters after going 2-0-1 in group play (drew with North Korea in opener, and then beat Sweden and Nigeria).
What went wrong?
A look at where things broke down:
The change: After beating England solidly 3-0 in the quarterfinals in China, Ryan and his staff decided it was best to make a goalkeeping change for the semifinal against Brazil. Making a goalkeeping change is fairly unusual at a World Cup, especially when you haven't already been splitting time between goalkeepers and your backup, Brianna Scurry, has not been logging the needed minutes. Scurry had started just seven national team games -- and played in a total of eight -- since the start of 2005; in that same span, Solo -- who declined espnW's request to be interviewed for this story -- had played in and started 40 matches.
I was a commentator covering the tournament for ESPN in 2007, and the goalkeeping change was announced at a news conference. As an analyst, I remember thinking the change made no sense at all given Scurry's limited playing time, but the players had to do what was best for the team at that moment.
"When it happened, I just thought, 'Oh, it's the coaches' choice,'" said Rampone, a veteran U.S. defender who is heading to her fifth World Cup. "I was thinking obviously they saw something we didn't see."
Markgraf recalled Ryan telling the team that if it came to it, Scurry was better in penalty kicks than Solo. And Ryan liked Scurry's recent track record against Brazil.
"Greg said, 'I feel confident and I'm going to go with her,'" Boxx added. "That was it. Then he walked out and I was like, 'Wow. OK.'"
The change had been made. Solo was on the bench and Scurry was starting.
"At end of day, it's the coaches' choice," Wambach said. "Our job was to go out and win."
Nothing went right: "Instead," Wambach continued, "everything that could go wrong went wrong."
The United States gave up an own goal in the 20th minute. Boxx, who received a yellow card in the 14th minute, got sent off right before halftime after a second caution. And before the U.S. women knew it, they were down 2-0 and down a player in the first half. "On that day, all the elements went against us," Wambach recalled.
Boxx has thought a lot about that red card since 2007.
"I've looked at it again and again. It makes me so mad. It was a bad call," she said recently. "I remember watching it inside the locker room on TV, and crying."
Lilly, the captain of the 2007 team, also sighed when asked what she remembered.
"It was the worst game of my entire life," she said. "We just got beat. [Brazil star] Marta was having her way. No one was going to contain her on that day. It felt like we were playing catch-up the entire game."
Brazil was up a player the entire second half, but curiously, Ryan chose to substitute in two U.S. defenders when down three goals. I never understood this move in 2007 and still don't eight years later. The United States has never been a team to make moves to stop the bleeding. Rather, it's a team that always thinks it can come back regardless of the deficit and regardless of the situation. Imagine the message that sent to the U.S. players on the field right then.
For Markgraf, it just didn't feel right: "For the first time, I looked around and I thought, 'We don't have the confidence to win this game.'"
Boxx felt it, too.
"I just felt like we were NOT the best team that year," she said. "Even if we did have 11 players, could we have come back against Brazil? ... I was nervous. I've never felt that way before or since."
"Crisis of identity": The United States eventually lost 4-0 and Hope Solo lashed out in a widely viewed and highly controversial postgame interview that included the words: "There's no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves."
Chaos ensued. Solo's rant went viral and critics around the globe weighed in from every side. The team, angry and feeling betrayed, held several meetings and ultimately voted that Solo would not suit up for -- or even sit on the bench during -- the third-place game.
Boxx referred to everything that happened after Solo's interview as a "nightmare."
"I kept thinking this is NOT what this is supposed to be," Boxx said. "This is not what this journey should be like."
Markgraf, eight years removed, offered this insight: "I don't think Hope was the problem, I honestly don't."
Instead, Markgraf said the team was caught in a leadership void after so many veterans had left the squad. The transition wasn't easy.
"We were searching for an identity in '07. A lot of us old-timers were still working under the personality of the old team, but those personalities weren't there anymore," she said. "It was our fault as older players, we couldn't lead the same way.
"I knew we had the mentality, athleticism, good players. But we never had a unifying way. Even though we had all these incredible pieces and always could make them fit before, this time too many new pieces were introduced and couldn't be put together. ... We had a crisis of identity."
And the Solo controversy didn't help.
When asked if she was surprised by Solo's postgame reaction -- watching at the time as a fan, no longer a team member -- Mia Hamm said: "It's normal for players -- especially in an emotional environment where you really want to help the team -- to have an emotional reaction, especially when the team has not been successful. I was caught off guard with the fact that it was actually being expressed.
"We're all competitors, all the best of the best. ... Everyone wants to be out on that field, but you also understand that is your teammate. The decision to play wasn't [Scurry's), it was the coaches'."
And now, years later, as she heads to her fourth World Cup, Boxx said, "For me, it is long gone. Hope still is my teammate and has turned a corner right now and is one of the best keepers in the world. But at the time, I was pretty pissed.
"This is a team sport and I didn't feel like she put the team first."
Ditch the comparisons: The U.S. women -- with Scurry in the net -- regrouped to beat Norway 4-1 three days after losing to Brazil.
Said Markgraf: "The team had to blow up to realize it was broken and it wasn't working."
You think so?
"Yeah, I do," Markgraf continued. "I still feel sorry for that team. In 2008 and 2007, those teams were always compared to that 1999 team. We were all tired of it. I was tired of being compared to that legend. There was so much mystique tied to that ['99] team, but that team wasn't perfect, either. It wasn't always unicorns and butterflies. But it worked. You knew your role.
"In '07, we just didn't jell. That is the best way to put it. We were trying to play under an identity that the team wasn't."
Resilience: It's something the U.S. women's national team has always taken great pride in. And 2007 was no different. As Lilly recalled, "I remember the team responded as we always do, even with all the turmoil surrounding the semifinal game. Unfortunately, it was the third-place game."
Respect, Part I: First, you must have it for your teammates. I still completely disagree with Ryan's decision to bench Solo, but I also still completely disagree with Solo's response. It is not the first time a player has felt shafted, disrespected and replaced without notice. Nor will it be the last. And this is where Solo -- now eight years removed from the incident but still seduced by the sweet smell of drama -- cannot allow herself to be distracted or enticed. A self-induced Solo blowup is not an option if the U.S. women want to win the World Cup.
She has proved, however, that she's capable of quickly moving on. Eleven months after she was benched in the World Cup in China, Solo and the U.S. women won a gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In the 1-0 overtime victory against Brazil in the gold-medal match, Solo played perhaps one of the best games of her career.
Respect, Part II: You've got to have it for opponents, too. To a player, one of the overriding memories from 2007 was the way the Brazilians celebrated postgame. This one seared an image on the minds of all U.S. players.
Said Wambach: "The hardest thing to swallow for our team was after in the hotel. Both teams were in same hotel, and [the U.S. women were] all in the lobby getting consoled by friends and family in China. In the middle of nowhere, the Brazilian team comes in, inside those roundabout doors, beating drums and celebrating as we are all looking at them from the lobby. We were like, REALLY? YOU ARE REALLY GOING TO DO THIS TO US RIGHT NOW?"
Said Rampone: "I remember [Rampone's daughter] Riley wanted to dance. I said, 'This is not a time to celebrate. Sit your butt down.'"
Said Boxx: "We will never forget that moment. We were shocked by that. Heartbroken by it. They came through the door and actually danced around us. It was crazy."
Boxx shared how she later became friends with many of those same Brazilians in WPS, the women's pro league. She said, "We would talk and joke about it, but every time we play Brazil, it stays with me. I don't want them to ever do it again."
Said Markgraf: "I just remember thinking, I don't care what I am going to do, I am going to [expletive] beat you again one day. Keep dancing so I can beat you the next year and the next. Bring it. Bring it."
As mentioned above, the United States -- after a coaching change, a shift in philosophy under new coach Pia Sundhage, and raw memories of 2007 -- beat Brazil in the final of the 2008 Olympics.
In fact, the U.S. women have not lost to Brazil in an Olympics or World Cup since that groan-inducing 2007 World Cup game.
Note to any athlete at any age: Dancing and singing around your opponents after just beating them is never a good idea.