May you live in interesting times, or—if you’re a sports team—may you play in interesting matches. On Sunday, the U.S. women’s soccer team, which had brazenly passed through a pair of wild, close games to reach the final of the Women’s World Cup, finally ran out of lives, losing a thrilling and deeply weird championship match to Japan on penalties. It was a game that didn’t just defy history—Japan had never beaten the U.S. women in its 25 previous matches. It also upended everything we thought we’d learned about these teams during the tournament.
To start with, the teams swapped styles. Team USA had been lauded all month for its athleticism and fitness, which translated into a direct, whack-and-run style of play. In their semifinal match against France, the Americans looked blunt and clumsy, letting their more technical opponents hoard possession for long stretches and eventually winning 3-1 thanks only to a late burst of energy from Megan Rapinoe and some inept French defending. Japan, by contrast, was a team of quirky angles and fine-grained passing, a flair side organized around midfielder (and eventual Golden Ball winner) Homare Sawa. So, of course, in the final, the U.S. women spent much of the match playing like a team Zinedine Zidanes—holding the ball, exploiting gaps, repeatedly splitting the pitch with precise passing—while Japan struggled to string two passes together and desperately looked for a counter.
Then there were the late-match-heroics. This had been the Americans’ department. Against Brazil in the quarterfinals, Team USA displayed nerves of polished steel: Abby Wambach’s already legendary 122nd-minute goal sent the match to penalties, then all five American women converted their spot kicks to secure the win. And after squandering a lead against France, the U.S. women managed two goals in the last 11 minutes. In Sunday’s final, though, it was Japan that overcame two late-game deficits to extend the match, while the Americans inexplicably collapsed, committing basic defensive errors on both Japanese goals and missing three of four penalties. (The only consolation of the night for the Americans might’ve been that the mighty Brazilian men’s team was even worse, crashing out of the Copa America quarterfinals after missing four straight penalty kicks.)
The Americans dominated the early part of the game by out-Japanning Japan (keeping the ball, using the whole pitch, building attacks from the back). Japan won it by out-USAing America (staying cool under pressure, saving their best for the end). Had the American women made more (i.e., any) of their zillions of early shots count, the story might have been different. But as it was, the match only seemed to further unsettle an already unsettled women’s soccer landscape—one in which the American team is in a particularly uncertain state.
The bad news for Team USA is that the American women’s structural advantages in organization, funding, and training seem to be dissipating as the level of technique in the international women’s game rises. If anything, Team USA is slightly less technically proficient, and more reliant on raw power, than the squad that won the 1999 World Cup. As long as Brazil’s players look like they’ve been introduced to each other in the bus on the way to the game, the American women’s superior cohesion and fitness might neutralize their opponents’ superior individual touch. But if the rest of the world starts to close the organization gap—and there were signs at this World Cup, with France and Japan, that that’s happening—then the U.S. women will need more than the glorious battering ram of Abby Wambach’s head to keep them near the top of the sport. In that sense, actually, the final was its own silver lining: The Americans showed that they could thrive with a more nuanced game, even if they didn’t quite win with it.
But the real good news for American women’s soccer is cultural. Thanks to the catharsis of the Brazil game and their careening progress through the tournament, the team managed to capture the nation’s attention without ever having to be a symbol for anything. Unlike the 1999 team, this year’s American women weren’t serving as role models for a nation’s daughters or nurturing a country through a presidential crisis. They weren’t offering a corrective counterexample to the greedy/childish/immoral superstars playing men’s sports. They were just more or less kicking ass, as dramatically and unpredictably as possible. Yes, the Obamas watched the game and the TV commentators loved the team’s determination and chemistry, but the Americans were charismatic in part because they were at least a little edgy. If I had a daughter who acted like Hope Solo, I’d be terrified, which is exactly why I love Hope Solo.
For that reason, as strange as it sounds, this final might have been the best thing that could happen to American women’s soccer. It was clear going in that Team USA could never rival the feel-good story of the Japanese, who dedicated their tournament to victims of the tsunami and nuclear disaster. As a result, the media covered the U.S. team more as a sports team than as a roving band of inspiration. And because of the way the final played out, it wasn’t even possible to reduce this team to some quality of can-do gutsiness. For most of Sunday’s game, the U.S. women didn’t look like plucky underdogs. They just looked like a team that was really good at soccer. As an American fan, I wish they’d won, but for a sport that struggles to garner its share of attention, it’s significant that I absolutely can’t wait to see what they’ll do next. May they play in interesting matches.