The U.S. is champion of CONCACAF. Again. Last night’s 6-0 rout of Costa Rica, featuring an Abby Wambach hat trick and another clean sheet for Hope Solo (who touched the ball roughly as many times as the unused Julie Johnston), was good for another shiny trophy to go with the World Cup berth that’d been secured on Friday.
But there was little confidence to be gained from the U.S.’s five games, or in head coach Jill Ellis’ lineups, apparently carved in stone like some soccer Ten Commandments (and God, these tablets are just way too much work to change, because they just don’t let you bring a chisel in your carry-on anymore). The U.S. plodded its way through a tournament in which it would have been virtually impossible for them not to qualify, looking perplexed at such things as opposing goalkeepers, while apparently struggling to distinguish teammates from opponents. There was no Canada, already qualified as World Cup host. Mexico was shell of its four years ago self. There were the usual when all else fails, go for the shins CONCACAF suspects, a Martinique team that’s not a member of FIFA and finished the tournament with a minus-21 goal difference, and a trio of teams were left to rely on fundraising and donations to compete.
Still, the U.S. tried, mightily, to mess the thing up. Ugly, disjointed, had these players even met before?
The U.S.’s five games, wins and clean sheets all, were hardly pretty, despite those results. It wasn’t quite as ugly as last time – that time four years ago that’s been all but zapped from the collective conscience Men in Black-style, left to collect dust alongside the Tom Sermanni-era national team and some game against Brazil in 2007, mentioned only if someone discovers them in the back of a drawer, or when that one dude gets too drunk at a holiday party and blurts out “REMBER CANCUNZZZADJKAX SHANNON BOXXRED CARADLFKJAD FIRST CAPS FOR EVERYONNNNE.”
Even by that standard, this time was pretty ugly. This team, one that’s mostly the same as four years ago, is again moving backwards, struggling to score against Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, and for 45 minutes against Guatemala … because parity. Time to trot out that old standby about the rest of the world catching up; about the U.S. slowing down. About age, and what is Jill Ellis doing? About how now it’s too late to bring in the youth and how in the days of Mia and Lilly and Akers it was mostly kids thrown in, left to sink or swim.
Except none of it matters. Not the failure to connect passes. Not the defensive breakdowns. Not the insane steadfastness in lineups, and not the failure to score. None of it matters.
Because four years ago, we did this too –- this too old, too slow, too reliant on fitness and lacking in technical ability thing –- and then, after the qualifying tournament, we got to do it for two extra games. And it turned out not to matter then, either.
It was the time when the U.S. lost to Mexico in 2010, turning an automatic World Cup berth into a crazy all-or-nothing three games: the third place match against Costa Rica, and then a two-leg playoff with Italy. That was the time the U.S. broke. Not like someone was interrogating them for hours and they finally cracked and gave up the nuclear codes because the incessant questioning was just too much broke, but like someone pitched a bowling ball through a plate glass window kind of broke. Like someone had taken a magic wand and said some crazy rhymes and poof-ed all that world domination away with a flick of the wrist.
Except that’s a lie, even though that spectacular crash and burn was hardly a fluke. The car hadn’t been running fine before it just burst into flames that night in Cancun. It’d had been making that noise, and then another one, and Pia Sundhage still drove it to Mexico. On three wheels. With the gas light on all the way, that window that just won’t stay rolled up, and the radio stuck on one station, playing the smooth, sad jazz of a misguided dad.
There was a lesson to be learned there: That the U.S. Women’s National Team, the top-ranked team in the world, was losing. Its edge, its power, its world domination. The once mighty U.S., reduced to a playoff; to a skin of its teeth pair of games in Padova and Chicago. How, we pondered, could this team possibly compete for a World Cup? There had been cracks: the original Alex Morgan Time miracle to keep the home winning streak alive in an otherwise nonsense friendly against China; an equally threatening outing against Sweden in Omaha; an ugly loss to England in London wherein the U.S. looked puzzled by things like “soccer ball” and “other team.”
No way that team was winning a World Cup, we thought. It was only in the World Cup by some miracle of horses of the baby variety. The U.S., all aged and slow and falling behind the rest of the world, would be lucky to get out its group.
Except that, too, turned out to be a lie. The U.S. did get out of its group. And it not only got out of its group but made it to the World Cup final. To penalty kicks. To within if only that shot had been put on goal instead of into orbit. That close to winning. Last team in, last team out. That close.
And that’s the thing. If the U.S. has taught us anything, it’s that until that weird golden trophy gets lifted and confetti rains down on that fine Canadian-grown turf some eight months from now, we know almost nothing. Just because CONCACAF qualifying was ugly doesn’t mean we’ve learned anything new about this team.