They are the rock stars of the sport, this U.S. women’s soccer team. And for years now they’ve carried themselves that way, all swagger and confidence.
So while Germany has won with relentless efficiency, Japan with flawless fundamental play and Brazil with flair, the U.S. has often won through intimidation, with former U.S. coach Tom Sermanni saying in past years he saw teams who looked beaten just watching the Americans walk out of the tunnel.
Part of that hasn’t changed. With a roster of the biggest stars, the biggest personalities and the biggest egos, the Americans have been the biggest draws of this World Cup.
But they’ve also been something else. For the first time in a long time, the U.S. women have been vulnerable.
It’s clear the rest of the world is no longer scared of the U.S., which made it through group play unbeaten but didn’t look good in doing so. And while World Cups used to be business trips for the Americans, this one had unfolded more like a soap opera, with no shortage of characters and story lines.
There’s Hope Solo, the petulant goalkeeper who can’t escape her dark past, and Abby Wambach, America’s aging Captain Ahab, still chasing her white whale of a World Cup title.
There’s Sydney Leroux, the mercurial forward with the daddy issues, and Alex Morgan, an assassin on the field and a cover girl off it.
Yet despite all their celebrity and chutzpah, the Americans have been under siege in Canada. And as a result the team has bunkered down, retreating into a protective bubble the outside world has only occasionally been able to penetrate.
“This team is under the microscope 24/7,” said U.S. Coach Jill Ellis, whose tactics have been the target of much of the outside criticism. “It’s been like that for years. So I think it just comes with the territory in terms of the attention that this team garners.”
But that microscope turned into a spotlight the day before the tournament started for the U.S. when ESPN reported damning new details of Solo’s arrest on suspicion of domestic violence last year. The charges against Solo were dismissed by a judge in January, though prosecutors plan to appeal the decision. The ESPN story suggested the case was hardly closed and soon the story was spinning out of control.
And Solo, unlike her teammates, was being kept largely out of sight.
Before the second U.S. game, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and TMZ joined the Solo debate, calling for Solo to be kicked off the team and TMZ uncovering 17-year-old court documents from Solo’s senior year in high school, when she allegedly punched a classmate three times before a restraining order was issued.
At about the same time the Americans also started taking friendly fire from former coach Pia Sundhage, who criticized Wambach, Solo and midfielder Carli Lloyd in an interview with the New York Times.
In its first game, the U.S. beat Australia, 3-1, only to have the Australians dismiss the U.S. and its tactics as “stuck in the past” — and that was after losing. Before that game German Coach Silvia Neid publicly gave thanks Solo wasn’t on her team.
Even Iceland questioned the Americans’ dominance and tactics after playing them to a scoreless draw in March.
It’s never a good thing when Iceland calls you out.
From inside their protective bubble the American players closed ranks, offering contradictory remarks by first claiming not to be aware of the tempests swirling about them, then saying they wouldn’t be distracted by them.
Maybe. But three games into this World Cup it’s clear that something isn’t right.
In the group-play final with Nigeria, the U.S. was one Wambach deflection away from being shut out in consecutive games for the first time in 13 years — and the first time ever in a World Cup.
Overall the team has played well at times and phenomenally in shorts bursts. But, inexplicably, it has also played poor and uninspired soccer for long stretches, with the Lloyd-led midfield, the engine to the U.S. attack, still struggling to find a rhythm.
Ironically, it’s been Solo — ground zero for much of the controversy that has apparently unsettled the team — who has kept the U.S. alive, allowing just a goal in 270 minutes.
“If you don’t give up any goals,” Ellis said “you’re going to have a chance.”
But if you don’t score any, it’s not much of a chance.
The U.S. still has the time and talent to right the ship, starting with Monday’s knockout-round game with Colombia.
Any more distractions, though, and the U.S. bubble could burst short of the semifinals for the first time in World Cup history.
And that’s not very intimidating.