U.S. women's soccer team weathers times that are a-changing

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It was, in many ways, the perfect night. A night of emotion. Of drama and of glory.

Four years ago this month, the U.S. women's soccer team won an Olympic gold medal in Athens when Abby Wambach scored on a header in overtime to beat Brazil 2-1.

It was clear, at that moment, the memory would last forever.

And that the U.S. women's team would not.

Everyone understood an era was passing. That night marked the last time Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett, Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Brandi Chastain would play together in a major international competition.

Yet, who could imagine that the changes in the coming years would seem so radical? Or so painful?

Heading into the Beijing Games, about half the players who stood on the podium together in Greece are gone. The United States has changed coaches — twice. Along with the major roster makeover, there was a minor mutiny within the ranks. And three weeks ago, it lost Wambach to a broken leg.

The team is 21-0-1 in 2008, but you can no longer say for sure the United States is the favorite in Beijing. The only certainty is that anything short of gold will be a disappointment.

"The cool thing about this team is we've held ourselves to the highest of standards," forward Heather O'Reilly said. "We recognize the popularity of soccer in this country lies on the results of these big tournaments. We're aware of that. If we take care of business on the field, everything will fall in place outside of that."

So what has happened since Athens? Plenty, and not all of it was pleasant.

No Hope

Greg Ryan replaced April Heinrichs as the head coach after the 2004 Games, and the U.S. national team would go on to lose only one game in the next three years. But the one loss was enough to get Ryan fired.

It was during the 2007 World Cup when Ryan made the inexplicable decision to replace starting goaltender Hope Solo with fading star Briana Scurry for a semifinal match against Brazil. The heavily favored United States lost 4-0, and Solo made headlines by criticizing Ryan and suggesting Scurry was the reason for the loss.

The episode eventually led to Ryan's contract not being renewed, and it also set off a firestorm within the team, with a number of players essentially ostracizing Solo.

"It's hard when you get hit head-on with a controversy like that," Wambach said this year at an Olympic media summit. "As a teammate, where do you start rebuilding a relationship? Everybody on this team has to find it in their hearts to forgive Hope in order for us to move forward. If you didn't forgive her, then, depending on your opinion, you would be doing the same injustice that some people think she did to our team by speaking out against the head coach."

Calling Bob Dylan

Pia Sundhage had a mess on her hands.

The new U.S. national coach was taking over a team still reeling from the goaltender controversy. A team trying to establish its identity after so many stars retired following the '04 Games. A team that looked lackluster after being favored to win the '07 World Cup.

And now the native of Sweden was meeting her team for the first time and trying to find the right words to express what she wanted to say.

"They were waiting for something special, and I couldn't find the right words in English," Sundhage said. "So I just started singing The Times They Are A-Changing."

She may not make it in nightclubs as a Bob Dylan impersonator, but Sundhage got her point across. She could tell by the laughter that greeted her karaoke moment.

The point was this team had to move beyond the fractured relationships and forget about the constant comparisons with the stars of previous years.

The win-loss record suggested the United States was still the dominant team in the world, and it was time to begin playing like that in international competition.

"People on the outside view it as a struggle with the old guard passing, with Mia and Julie retiring and then Kristine Lilly taking a break. We have to look at it as a great opportunity," defender Kate Markgraf said.

"There were some voices that hadn't been heard on our team because we had such strong, dominant personalties that were there before. .... When things change, opportunities arise."

An unlucky break

The United States was about 27 minutes from heading into the Beijing Games as the gold-medal favorite. That's when Wambach collided with a Brazilian player and broke her leg in the summer's final tuneup game.

What does it mean, losing Wambach?

Well, the former University of Florida star has 99 career goals for the national team. The team's second-leading scorer is Lindsay Tarpley with 27.

Though the timing of the injury could not be worse for Wambach, there is a silver lining for the U.S. team. Upon her arrival, Sundhage implemented an offensive system that relied less on Wambach and attempted to spread the scoring around.

So, though Wambach led the team with 13 goals this season, Natasha Kai had 11, and Tarpley had 10.

"The unpredictability of this team is so much greater than the past," O'Reilly said. "Goals are coming from a ton of different places and a ton of different people."

So half the players are new. The coach is new. And the system is new.

And the time has come for this team to create some new memories.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

.FAST FACTS

2008 Olympics

When/where: Friday-Aug. 24, Beijing

Number of countries: 205

Number of athletes: More than 10,000

Number of sports: 35.

Medals: Gold, silver and bronze will be awarded in 302 events.

Time difference: Beijing is 12 hours ahead of the Tampa Bay area.

TV: Women's soccer preliminary-round games, including U.S. vs. Norway live, 7:30 a.m., MSNBC. Olympic kickoff show, 10 p.m., Telemundo.

U.S. women's soccer team weathers times that are a-changing 08/05/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 6, 2008 7:15am]

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