In the end, the U.S. Women's Soccer Team had the heart but not the nerve.
With everything on the line, with the World Cup trophy firmly in their grasp, not once, not twice, but thrice, Hope Solo and company couldn't hold on. They felt the weight of the moment — and it crushed them. Faced with a team that matched, if not bettered its own ballyhooed resolve, the U.S. turned into Rory McIlroy at the Masters, the Red Sox in the 1986 World Series, Georgetown against Villanova in the 1985 Final Four.
Make no mistake, the U.S. loss to Japan in the World Cup final Sunday ranks as one of the greatest chokes in sports history. To pretend otherwise, to try and sugarcoat it another way because it's women's sports and ... well, that means you're supposed to be nice ... would be an insult to Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and Solo — as well as the steely competitors who made women's soccer (Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Michelle Akers and Brandi Chastain) before them.
Yes, Japan deserves credit for turning this epic mismatch into an epic game, for coming back again and again to forge an improbable 2-2 tie and a 3-1 penalty kick romp for the championship. But the U.S. team deserves more blame for transforming the final into a Farrelly Brothers movie (the Americans couldn't stop throwing up all over themselves).
Missing its first three chances in penalty kicks said it all.
"You don't, you can't," U.S. coach Pia Sundhage told the ESPN cameras when asked how you explain the 0-for-3 penalty kick start. "Sometimes in, sometimes out. You can't (explain it)."
Sorry, but Sundhage only wishes it really were that fickle. This wasn't fate. It was a complete fold.
To pretend otherwise, to try and sugarcoat it another way because it's women's sports and ... well, that means you're supposed to be nice ... would be an insult to Wambach, Morgan and Solo — as well as the steely competitors who made women's soccer before them.
Thrown into a shootout that it never should have found itself in, the U.S. Women's team turned into a cast of jittery zombies, their nerves jangling like keys for all the soccer-loving world to see. Wambach — one of the few American players who didn't seize up with a goal in extra time and the only successful U.S. penalty kick conversion — rightly acknowledged as much.
"I'm not sure," Wambach said when asked to explain all the blown leads and missed opportunities in her own TV interview. "I think the magnitude of all this can get the best of you.
"I don't know. Japan just kept coming and they never gave up."
Japan played for a country devastated but the still inconceivable horror of that tsunami. The U.S. played not to lose.
This was never more apparent than after Wambach scored on another header (her noggin should be considered a weapon of mass destruction) in the 104th minute. Just when it appeared like the U.S. had won it (again), taking a 2-1 lead with only 16 minutes left in extra time, the nerves frayed and unraveled like a ball of yarn.
Suddenly, the U.S. women could not keep Japan out of its end. This wasn't a champion trying to close out a match, it was a frightened team just desperately hoping that time would run out.
It didn't of course. It almost never does for the timid. Instead, Japan's captain Homare Sawa scored on a scramble off a corner kick with 36-year-old U.S. defender Christie Rampone — the American captain — unable to clear the ball out of the box in the 81st minute.
It's sad to see Rampone go out this way. I covered her for years in New Jersey, through the 1999 World Cup and beyond when she was Christie Pearce and one of the younger players on the team rather than the elder stateswoman and mom of two she is now. But in many ways, the finish was fitting. For this was the game, the championship, that the U.S. women could not close.
Not when Alex Morgan scored on a spectacular breakaway off a pinpoint long pass from Megan Rapinoe in the 69th minute. Not when Morgan — who figures to become the new photogenic face of U.S. women's soccer — set up Wambach in the 104th minute. Not when the teams went into penalty kicks and the presence of Solo in the net (shaken up or not) should have given the U.S. a huge advantage.
The U.S. stood nine minutes away from the championship in regulation time, a mere three minutes away in extra time.
Wambach, Morgan and company still walked off the field stunned.
Choke's on them.
The U.S. couldn't handle success so it's left with some tainted silver. You could see the contrast in nerves as Japan coach Norio Sasaki just kept calmly looking at his notes after the U.S. seemed to win the game. He wasn't panicked. He didn't even look frenzied. He was serene.
We've still got this, somehow his body language screamed and somehow with players like Aya Miyama, they did.
It's hard to say what this collapse on the biggest stage will mean to women's soccer in the U.S. going forward. This figured to be a one-time, few-week interest boost in the game anyway. Remember how the '99 World Cup was going to change everything and bring a new, dynamic women's soccer league to the U.S.? That league folded within four years with barely a publicity peep and it's hard to imagine a win rather than a loss in the final in Germany flipping any of that into some happy new reality for the next struggling league.
U.S. Women's soccer will next matter in the Olympics in London. Until then, Sundhage and the rest of the team should join Wambach in acknowledging the truth: They choked. If women's sports is to take that next leap than Wambach and friends need to be held to the same level of accountability that Landon Donovan and his teammates would be in a similar, heavily-favored situation.
Plenty of heart. No nerve.
Sometimes, you don't get to choose your legacy.