BEIJING – The television commercial the United States women's soccer team shot last year may not qualify as art. But it has certainly been imitated by life.
A road trip from hell through foreign territory before ending up with a shot at redemption against Brazil? That sounds familiar.
The sponsors wanted to show the team's desperation to gain revenge over the Brazilians for their 4-0 hammering in the Women's World Cup semifinals. And while the U.S.'s trek to the Olympic gold-medal game has not been made on dusty roads through Central and South America in the back of a Dodge Caravan, it has been strewn with obstacles and danger just the same.
More than once coach Pia Sundhage's side has flirted with failure at the Beijing Games, but it reached its destination by clinching a rematch with Brazil in Thursday's final with a 4-2 victory over Japan on Monday night.
"Everything happens for a reason," defender Heather Mitts said. "It is kind of crazy it is all happening like this, but to be the best you have to beat the best."
A sense of destiny is coursing through the U.S. squad.
Brazil beat Germany 4-1 in the first semifinal in Shanghai, and while either team would have provided a stern test for a U.S. unit missing star striker Abby Wambach, the Brazilians are the ones the Americans wanted.
Thursday's gold-medal game means so much because of history and humiliation and the defeat that spawned soul-searching, in-fighting and even that TV commercial.
Sept. 27, 2007, was the night in Hangzhou in eastern China when goalkeeper Briana Scurry's age caught up with her, Shannon Boxx was sent off and the U.S. lost its aura of invincibility. It was also the night a woman named Marta set the bar of individual brilliance at a new high for women's soccer as she toyed with the American defense.
And, as if we could forget, that was the night when Hope Solo sat shaking her head on the bench, steam coming from her ears over former coach Greg Ryan's surprising decision to start Scurry. The anguished thoughts going through her tormented mind would soon spill over in the post-match interview and thrust her into an unwanted spotlight.
As it came away with bronze medals and bruised egos from the World Cup, the U.S. women's program appeared to be decaying and fragmented, representing a sad echo of its past greatness. Yet what this Olympic group has proven is that it has character, having regrouped after the loss of Wambach to injury and stalwart Kristine Lilly to the start of her family.
To keep their medal dreams alive, the Americans have had to fight and scrap and, yes, ride their luck a little, too. If the final chapter in this team's Olympic story is plated with gold, it will only add to the achievement.
There is still much work to be done, though.
On Monday, the flowing and stylish soccer only started in the second half. Before then, Japan had dominated the early part of the contest, taking the lead on Shinobu Ohno's goal after 16 minutes.
Angela Hucles' equalizer four minutes before halftime sucked the life out of Japan, and Lori Chalupny's impressive strike just before the interval set the tone for the second half. Heather O'Reilly and Hucles both scored late before Eriko Arakawa grabbed a meaningless consolation goal with the last kick of the game.
Boxx knows the U.S. will have to play its best soccer of the tournament to be competitive in the final.
"We have not had the easiest road, but every game we have gotten better," the midfielder said. "Brazil is a great side and we have to be ready to play or we will get beat. In the final, you have to play better, and that is our goal."
Even then, it might not be enough. Remember Marta and those Brazilians from last year? Guess what? Now they are even better and will be oozing confidence after beating Germany.
Their brand of counter-attacking soccer will be tough for the U.S. to defend. However, Brazil has faltered before when it really counts, most notably in a tepid display in last year's World Cup final against Germany.
"Our players have a lot of experience," Sundhage said. "And, maybe more importantly, we have been through a lot to get to the final. That could be important."
Victory on Thursday would follow in the footsteps of predecessors like Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain, who led the U.S. to gold in Athens. The feat would be about something new as well – a new coach in Sundhage and a new line of thought. A new approach that shows success is possible even without superstars like Wambach. A new method of victory as the underdog instead of the dominant force.
A new commercial would likely follow, too.
- Pia Sundhage
- Abby Wambach