— The scoreboard is a digital reminder of their unexpected win, the squared-off numbers presiding over their onfield celebration. As the Japanese players throw their heads back and raise their arms to the sky, their American counterparts walk off the field to the slow rhythm of runners-up applause. They sink their teeth into their bottom lips, hoping they can make it from their biggest disappointment to the benches in front of their lockers before their expressions crumble completely.
The Women’s World Cup? No, that was the scene from the green seats at Howard J. Lamade stadium, the home of the Little League World Series. Last summer an unlikely team from Tokyo beat the Americans from Hilo, Hawaii, becoming the first international winner since 2003 and proving that it’s impossible to look hard when the onscreen graphics mention your favorite cartoon characters.
That late-summer loss was just another reminder that the United States doesn’t dominate international sports anymore, even those that take place between our own pair of irregular coastlines. Amateur or professionals, individuals or teams, our national squads have endured several calendars’ worth of missed chances, missed opportunities and flat-out misses. Sometimes three in a row.
Despite last weekend’s heroics, Sunday’s FIFA Women’s World Cup finale was both painful and predictable. We were the favorites, the overdogs, the Goal-iaths, if you’re into puns that make your brain bleed. We were supposed to be headers and shoulders above Japan (and not just because of 5-foot-11 Abby Wambach).
We rallied, we battled and we used a thesaurus worth of synonyms while we tried to shake the dogged Nadeshiko, to avenge a decade’s worth of early World Cup exits and shush the critics who over-analyzed our occasionally creaky performances during the Group Stage. We were up 1-0 when defender Ali Krieger paused — possibly to look up another word for “vindicate” — and Aya Miyama buried the normal-time equalizer in the back of the net.
Everyone knows what happened next, between the end of regulation and the team's pained expressions during the awards presentation. Now they pack up and come home, collecting passport stamps and polite conversations in airports. Some of them will retire. Some will read Letterman’s Top Ten list. All of them will wonder “What if,” while they skip past their last names in newspaper paragraphs. They’re athletes; they know that stories about moral victories never follow actual ones.
So what’s happened to us, to the U.S., when it comes to international competition? This isn’t just about Sunday, but about other sports and other oversized stages, the times when we’re expected to be Broadway-caliber but instead, we’re Red, White & Blaine. You know, like this:
Golf: The American men have dropped four of the past five Ryder Cups and haven’t had to wait around for a Major awards ceremony since April 2010, since Phil Mickelson collected another green sports coat. Unless a U.S. player puts together four solid rounds during next month’s PGA Championship (and we’re looking at you, Rickie Fowler, assuming you can see us through your BieberBangs) this year will be the first time we’ve been shut out of the Majors since 1994.
The LPGA-ers have fared slightly better than their windsuit-wearing PGA counterparts, taking home four of the last five Solheim Cups, with a chance to pick up another etched crystal trophy in the fall. Also, Stacy Lewis carded her first career win at the season’s first major, the Kraft-Nabisco Championship.
Tennis: The U.S. men haven’t taken a Grand Slam event since Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick bookended the 2003 season with wins in the Australian and U.S. Opens, respectively. We’ve only borrowed the Davis Cup twice since 1995, fewer times than France, Spain, Sweden, Russia and two pieces of the former Yugoslavia.
The women have been carried on the perpetually sculpted shoulders of Venus and Serena; the last time an American not named Williams won a major was in 2002. And our womens’ team hasn’t left a set of smudged handprints on the Fed Cup in over a decade.
Cycling: Ever since Lance Armstrong retired in 2005, the American men have spent the majority of the Tour de France staring at the back of someone else's helmet. (Save for Floyd Landis, who lost his '06 title in a plastic specimen cup.) Spain has earned the overall yellow jersey for the past five years, producing three different winners.
Soccer: The men’s national team has spent the past two years dropping more Cups than Elsa Schnieder and Indiana Jones combined. They blew a two-goal lead to Brazil in the ’09 Confederations Cup final, lost to Ghana during last summer’s World Cup, and endured three ugly international friendlies before gagging on another two-goal advantage in the Gold Cup final, falling 4-2 to Mexico.
Ironically, the women’s national team was the squad that looked the best this year. They won the Algarve Cup and the Four Nations Tournament before faltering in one of their four pre-World Cup friendlies (which included a pair of 2-0 wins over Japan). After Sunday, they’re now the saddest trivia answer ever, becoming the first American team to lose in the World Cup Final.
How do we fix it? I’m not sure we can, let alone need to. Despite a lack of reasons to shout U-S-A! U-S-A! at regular intervals (other than during $4.99 sirloin night at Golden Corral), it’s encouraging to realize that there is so much competition, that there are athletes emerging from places on the map we might’ve previously overlooked. The increasingly crowded international sports scene should be celebrated, especially when it comes to the extra participation from women and the development of women’s teams, leagues and tournaments; FIFA has already announced that eight teams will be added to the 2015 Women’s World Cup.
It’s premature to describe it as parity, but in some cases, other countries are catching up to us; in others, we’re still trying to catch up to them. That doesn’t make it any easier to stare at our collection of international Participant ribbons. What does is the amount of time that passes between these time-zone spanning stomach punches. There are four years between World Cups and World Baseball Classics, two between Ryder and Solheim Cups, and at least a thousand Batman teaser trailers before another season of majors and Grand Slams.
Even though our failures aren’t constantly shoved back into our red, white and blue painted faces, it’s still enough for any fan to take an extended sports staycation. We can re-focus on our unchallenged domestic leagues, like the NF … um … the NB … I mean, Major League Baseball, where the World Series is almost as inaccurately named as the International House of Pancakes. (We'll ignore the World Baseball Classic, the tournament that we INVENTED before we lost. Twice.)
That said, we’re still counting on you kids in Williamsport. Practice laying down bunts and catch up on your favorite cartoons, because if you don’t win this year, you’re grounded.