U.S. women capture public's imagination but need to win title

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The cross. The header. The drama.

The U.S. women's national team delivered an epic moment on Sunday against Brazil, playing short-handed, with Abby Wambach's equalizing goal in the 122nd minute and the ultimate victory on penalty kicks.

And, not surprisingly, the drama was followed by a wee bit of hyperbole.

Coach Pia Sundhage, stunned in the aftermath, struggled for words. She finally settled on, "There's something about the American attitude to find a way to win." Wambach echoed that thought, saying, "this is a perfect example of what this country's about." The ESPN crew ran with it; studio analyst Tony DiCicco called the win "a celebration of the American spirit."

National pride is fine. But there are a couple of things to remember.

First, this team hasn't won anything yet. That was the quarterfinal. The Americans have a tough semifinal opponent in France and if they survive that, another game, potentially against a Swedish team that has already beaten them. The harsh truth is Sunday's drama will fade if it doesn't lead to a championship.

And, second, while the never-give-up attitude fits into our national sensibilities, we're not alone. Before we stamp "Made in the USA" on the concept of late-game soccer heroics we need to remember what else happened last weekend in the World Cup quarterfinals.

Unheralded Japan scored a goal late in extra time to beat the two-time defending World Cup champions, Germany, in front of a hostile crowd.

France -- the team the U.S. will face Wednesday -- came back from a deficit against England to tie the game and then win on penalty kicks.

So winning late is not just an American thing.

But there is an American stamp on this tournament. It's in the form of the parity that we're seeing, an equality that makes a U.S. victory in the quarterfinals such a compelling moment, rather than a ho-hum foregone conclusion.

The lessons of Title IX have filtered around the world to varying degrees in the past decade. Countries that routinely ignored their women's teams have directed resources, energy and a certain amount of pride toward their women's teams.

The result has been a far more closely contested Women's World Cup than we've ever seen in the past. Back in 1999, you could practically ink China and the U.S. into the finals. Now China didn't even make the tournament. Another former power, Norway, was knocked out in the first round. Brazil, which has made the past three Olympic and World Cup finals, is out. So is Germany. And the U.S. had to fight for its life.

And that fight will likely only continue.

A team like France is built on something the Americans can't compete with: the strength of the existing soccer culture in Europe. Olympique Lyonnais is the strongest French soccer club for both men and women, and 10 of its members play for Les Bleues. Another Lyon player, Lotta Schelin, helped propel Sweden into the semifinals.

Olympique Lyonnais is the most dominant women's team in France. It won the UEFA Women's Champions League this year. The women's version of the tournament was launched a decade ago, not long after the 1999 Women's World Cup drew such eye-popping numbers in the United States. Federations started to take the women's game seriously.

While the U.S. has struggled to launch a professional women's league, powerhouse clubs in Europe -- in France, Germany and England -- are supporting women's teams. That's something that can't happen here: Major League Soccer isn't strong enough to prop up another league. Subsequently the American players are left chasing makeshift teams: six on the U.S. roster play for something called the Boca Raton MagicJack -- formerly the Washington Freedom -- who play at Florida Atlantic University.

The disjointed status of a professional league may have played a part in the U.S. team's struggle to even qualify for the World Cup. The Americans were the last team in this year. Their level of play throughout the tournament has been sufficient but not dazzling.

It's not what anyone who witnessed 1999 could have predicted. That team raised the bar so high -- packing football stadiums, generating phenomenal television ratings, becoming household names -- that anything seemed possible. A professional league. A steady upward trajectory. A continued legacy of dominance.

It hasn't worked out that way. The U.S. hasn't won a World Cup since. One league (WUSA) failed; its successor (WPS) is on life support. Over the years, the U.S. national team has become largely invisible.

Until the past week. Until another thrilling ending, one that finally let this team forge its own identity, separate from the 1999 team.

The U.S. team delivered its signature moment. It gave a new generation of girls a chance to feel empowered and dream big. It captured the imagination of the public.

The Americans haven't won anything yet. But their legacy is on display in every game of this tournament.

More importantly, they reminded their own country that they still matter.