Lost in the sturm und drang over the Hope Solo affair at last year's Women's World Cup was a painful truth: The U.S. was playing ugly soccer.
Brazil exposed the Americans' lack of imagination the most in a historic 4-0 semifinal victory, but even when the U.S. was winning, it was doing so with brute force, overly defensive tactics and a reliance on thumping long balls to forwards Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly.
"It killed us to play that way," Solo says now. "In our hearts, we weren't proud. It was bad soccer."
Much has changed in the 11 months since. Neither Lilly nor Wambach will play for the U.S. in the 2008 Olympics. (Lilly took time off to have her first child, and Wambach broke her leg in the team's last pre-Olympic exhibition.) Meanwhile, new coach Pia Sundhage has junked the long-ball approach and instituted a ground-based short-passing attack that goes through the midfield and not over it.
"We stripped our team of everything we knew about the game of soccer and implemented a new style of play," Solo says. "It's supposed to be a beautiful game. You're supposed to knock the ball around, go through the midfield, change the point of attack. Our goal is to win the gold medal, but it's also about how we win the gold. It's about playing the best soccer we can play, beating teams with class on the field and showing that we understand the game."
Such sweeping changes are a lot to ask from the coach and especially from the team, which is why the thing I'm most looking forward to in China is whether the U.S. women can win again -- and win with style. (Their opening match is scheduled for Aug. 6 against Norway.)
From the time women's soccer became an Olympic sport in 1996, the U.S. has never gone through a two-year World Cup/Olympics cycle without winning at least one of the tournaments. But last year's World Cup failure and the loss of Wambach (the team's best player) now present the U.S. with perhaps the stiffest challenge in the program's storied history.
No player in U.S. history -- not even Mia Hamm or Michelle Akers -- has scored more goals per 90 minutes than Wambach's .935. And yet there's still reason for optimism in the U.S. camp despite her injury. Now that the Yanks are playing through the midfield again, they're a lot more fun to watch. New scoring threats have emerged in Natasha Kai, Carli Lloyd, Amy Rodriguez and Angela Hucles.
"We've been playing some really good soccer, and we can score some fantastic goals," says Lloyd. "There are so many different scoring options. It's not just one or two people."
Still, you never know how a team will react when it's under the kind of Olympian pressure that awaits the U.S. women in China. Will the players revert to their bad old long-ball habits in a tight game against the World Cup champion Germans or ball-wizard Brazilians?
Or will they do what the U.S. women have always done: rebound from a bitter defeat and find a way to triumph again?