— Nobody likes to lose. It makes your cereal taste soggy and your bed feel lumpy. Depending on the circumstances and what's at stake, losing can remain in your system like a parasite. There is no known cure, other than to go out and win the next time around.
But I have to issue the U.S. women’s soccer team a special waiver, to be used just this once. It’s not because losing is acceptable. It’s just that, considering everything, it’s not as stomach-churning as it could have been.
The U.S. women deserve a few gentle noogies today for squandering a raft of opportunities in their World Cup final Sunday against Japan. In another sporting context, you might be tempted to give them even more of a scolding. In the first half alone, they probably could have been ahead, 5-0, or so, if shots had gone a foot or two this way or that.
They had leads of 1-0, and 2-1 in this 2011 final, and each time allowed a determined team of Japanese women to tie the game. After extra time, it came down to penalty kicks, like it did in 1999. There likely were lots of sports bras on the field Sunday in Frankfurt, but none were bared for the U.S. in a moment of sports exultation and marketing bliss.
The U.S. women failed to come through. They lost.
Here are the three provisos from the aforementioned waiver that apply:
The U.S. women were among the favorites to win this World Cup. Japan wasn’t. The Japanese weren’t considered as athletic or talented as the Americans. What they were was well-coached and disciplined. Plus, they had perseverance, which is often the best thing to have.
If you were rooting for the Americans you experienced queasiness in the first half as opportunity after opportunity either hit a post or went wide or over the goal. There were the conflicting senses that the U.S. was in control and that Japan was gaining confidence. It was that old lament come to life again in sports: “If you let a team hang around and don’t put it away ...”
In the second half, the Americans got a goal by Alex Morgan and one by Abby Wambach in extra time, but each time Japan fired back to tie the match. It was not an exemplary display by the U.S. of how to close. The Americans were six minutes away from winning their third World Cup before they let Japan back in.
But it was the penalty kicks that represented the icing on a fallen cake. Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath all looked like LeBron in the fourth quarter when they missed penalty shots. Japan won that shootout, 3-1, and with it came its first victory against the U.S. in 26 tries.
So any pundit would ask this question after such a fumbled chance: To rip, or not to rip? When choosing the former, it is important to feel it in one’s gut. The instinct to hammer must be greater than the one to ease up. In this case, it’s just not there with any real potency.
These U.S. women didn’t lose on a comical own goal. They didn’t pout when things didn’t go their way, like the Brazilian women did against the Americans. And on Sunday, they didn’t deflate after failing to convert chances; they kept competing, especially when it became clear that Japan had no intention of giving up.
Taken as a whole, they had a magnificent run. Generally speaking, they expressed a positive message to the women’s soccer movement in the United States.
Now for the bad news:
Just as Brandi Chastain’s famous moment sticks in the memory, this one will stick in the craw. Just as women’s soccer can hang Brandi’s bra on its mantel as a symbol of female determination in sports, this game will be an aching reminder that you can lose, too.
Sunday’s defeat does not rank on the ignominy-o-meter quite like Greg Norman at the Masters, or the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl, or the 2006 Dallas Mavericks/2011 Miami Heat. Those were larger flops.
And there's the national team aspect. These were young women representing their country. (See waiver: section C, subparagraph 5). They gave it their all. It’s just that a lot of their all missed the goal.
On the other side were young women representing their country, one that was desperate for some measure of national pride after an agonizing period of devastation (which figures to continue for some time). None of the Japanese women tore off their shirts to expose their sports bras, but in their own way, simply hugging each other and smiling served the same purpose.
Where do the U.S. women go from here? They keep their heads held high and carry on, with an eye toward 2015. Remember, much of the reason they’re considered among the greatest in the world today is because of the groundwork laid by the 1999 team. That reminded young women interested in soccer that anything is possible.
And now that they know losing is possible after you thought you had it wrapped up, maybe they’ll work that much harder.