BEIJING – What was supposed to be the dawn of a brave new era for the United States women's soccer team turned into the final confirmation that the golden days are done.
Even if Pia Sundhage's players manage to bounce back from Wednesday's miserable 2-0 defeat to Norway that opened their Olympic campaign in the worst possible way, the realization has now surely sunk in that this is a program that must be rebuilt from scratch.
In its first high-profile match since the farcical collapse at the 2007 Women's World Cup, the U.S. was devoid of ideas against the Norwegians and looked anything but defending gold medalists. Make no mistake, a defeat to the world's fifth-ranked team should raise far more alarm bells than the World Cup semifinal loss to a Brazil side that was inspired by the brilliance of Marta and helped by some off-form goalkeeping by Briana Scurry.
No longer in place is the aura of invincibility that the U.S. used to impose its will on opponents. Even without star striker Abby Wambach, it was disturbing to see the ineffective way in which the Americans tried in vain to recover from two early goals.
A team that was built upon camaraderie and unity looked disjointed and puzzled. Even with much of the soccer tournament being played away from the gray and polluted skies of Beijing, the picture for the Americans looks gloomier than ever.
Nowadays, the U.S. is not an opponent to be feared. It is a wounded animal and a target for teams it would have swatted aside with disdain.
Chances are that Sundhage's charges will comfortably get past Japan and New Zealand to finish second in Group G. However, that would set up a quarterfinal clash with the winners of the Group of Death, Group F, which features Germany, Brazil and North Korea. On current form, a U.S. victory against either Germany or Brazil, currently the dominant nations in the women's game, would be unlikely.
The aftershocks of an early Olympic exit would be felt by the second coming of a professional women's league, which is due to kick off in the U.S. next year. The jolt of publicity that the league craves for its 2009 launch would be nonexistent.
"My glass is always half full," said Sundhage, who nonetheless must have felt like filling the metaphorical receptacle with a stiff drink.
"For us, it is a new experience to lose a game and the fact we tried to turn around and create some chances in the second half is positive. I'm happy that this is the first game and not the last."
Truth is, Sundhage's glass is cracking and could shatter at any moment. And if it does, the repercussions for U.S. women's soccer will not be pretty.
- Pia Sundhage