The last time the United States won the Women’s World Cup, Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy were still playing, Abby Wambach had just led Florida to the NCAA title and Alex Morgan was all of 10.
That 1999 title is so far in the distance, in fact, that captain Christie Rampone is the only current U.S. player who was part of the watershed tournament.
“It’s been way too long — 12 years — since we brought home that trophy,” goalkeeper Hope Solo said. “Twelve years is a long time.”
Ending that drought is the Americans’ sole objective at the Women’s World Cup, which begins Sunday and runs through July 17 in nine cities across Germany. One of the four top seeds, the U.S. opens group play Tuesday against North Korea in Dresden, then faces Colombia on July 2 in Sinsheim, and Sweden on July 6 in Wolfsburg.
Two-time defending champion Germany and Brazil, silver medalist at the last two Olympics and runner-up at the 2007 World Cup, are also top seeds, as is Japan.
“Everyone has the final game on our minds, and winning it,” Wambach said. “But we can’t skip any steps to get there.”
Despite coming up short at the last two World Cups, the Americans haven’t exactly been in a slump. They’ve won the last two Olympic gold medals, and begin the World Cup as the No. 1 team in the world. They have the world’s best goalkeeper in Solo, and one of the best goal-scorers in Wambach.
Yet the Americans aren’t the juggernaut they once were.
Part of that is a credit to other countries, many of whom are seeing the results of the additional resources they poured into their programs over the last decade. But the U.S. has also been uncharacteristically inconsistent as of late, particularly over the last year.
After going more than two years without a loss, the U.S. dropped three games in five months. The Americans were stunned in the semifinals of regional World Cup qualifying by Mexico, a team that had been 0-24-1 against its northern neighbor. The U.S. had to win a home-and-home playoff with Italy just to get to Germany.
The United States lost to Sweden in the Four Nations opener, though it did go on to win the tournament, and then was beaten by England for the first time since 1988.
And now the Americans take a relatively inexperienced squad into the World Cup, where the stadiums will be loud and the pressure intense. Thirteen of the 21 players on the roster were part of the gold medal squad in Beijing, but only eight have played in a World Cup.
Should the U.S. win its group, it would face the runner-up in Group B — Japan, New Zealand, Mexico and England. A potential showdown with Germany looms for the semifinals.
“They just haven’t shown that normal consistency of excellence that the U.S. is known for,” said Tony DiCicco, the U.S. coach in 1999 who is now an analyst for ESPN, which will broadcast live all 32 matches from Germany. “(The team) has had great games and then all of (a) sudden it has a game that seems sub-par. I’m not sure why that is.”
Injuries have been a big factor in the Americans’ fickleness. Solo missed qualifying after having shoulder surgery in September, and didn’t return until March. Wambach missed Four Nations with a heel injury. Heather Mitts, one of the team’s best defenders, struggled with a hamstring early in the year. Lindsay Tarpley, a key player in the midfield, was ruled out of the World Cup just last month after tearing her right ACL with 15 minutes left in a tune-up game against Japan.
Slow starts haven’t helped. Morgan scored in the 83rd minute against China in October to salvage a 1-1 draw and preserve the Americans’ six-year unbeaten streak at home. Her goal in stoppage time gave the U.S. a much-needed 1-0 win in the first playoff game against Italy. Lauren Cheney scored in stoppage time to lift the team to a 1-0 victory over Mexico in a June 5 send-off match.
“Our biggest weakness has been how we start the games,” Rampone said. “We have acknowledged it and now we are working on it and implementing things to start quicker. We know we can’t afford any (slow starts) in Germany. I think we are ready and we’ve had enough time together and we’re hitting our stride on the field. We’re now playing our way.”
And if the U.S. hits its stride, look out.
After losing the opening game in Beijing to Norway, the Americans outscored their next five opponents 12-3, including a 1-0 overtime victory against Brazil in the gold medal game. Even in a year when they’ve “struggled,” the Americans have posted six shutouts in 11 games, and outscored opponents 23-8.
“I’ve talked with (teammates) about it, what everyone needs to do in order to win,” Wambach said. “It comes down to playing well all the time and getting some lucky breaks. Really, luck plays so much into it. To win any championship in the world, you need some luck, too. What I do know is this team has the heart and the will and the desire to win.”