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Albanese: USA-Japan paralleled a classic tale

This year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup had it all. There were early goals, late goals, own goals, tons of drama, equal amounts of suspense, unexpected early exits, a David-and-Goliath-type final, and a thrilling end. Yup, this year’s World Cup had it all … except a United States championship.

But if you were following the United States Women’s National Team on their run to the World Cup final (which undoubtedly, everyone that is reading this was doing), then you got the best bang-for-your-buck. Take the group play phase out of the equation and you still had – as a U.S. supporter – the most thrilling ride of the tournament.

Championship or not, which of course, it’s not thanks to Japan’s win in the final on penalties, the U.S. couldn’t have done a better job at reeling in the most unlikely of viewers to watch them through the knockout phase. A loss to Sweden in the final match of Group C play set up a date with juggernaut Brazil and five-time FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year Marta. That brought in a bevy of viewers. An Abby Wambach header in the waning moments of stoppage time, in extra time, to force a penalty shootout and ultimately a win, put the U.S. in the semifinals. While that header put the club in a semifinal showdown with France, it also put a bunch more butts in the seats to watch across the country. Another late Wambach goal, breaking a 1-1 tie, followed by an insurance goal by who could be the next Mia Hamm (Alex Morgan), punched the U.S.’ ticket into the final, and along with it, a record number of viewers.

In the final, the world watched and reminisced about the ’99 World Cup championship – Brandi Chastain, Michelle Akers, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Brianna Scurry, Hamm, etc. – and how the two sides compared. Well, really, they don’t. It would have been an interesting parallel – the U.S. topped China in ’99 in penalties; 2011 would have been over another Far East opponent, and in penalties. Wambach would have potentially placed herself into uber-legendary status with a World Cup title under her belt. Morgan would have become the poster girl for women’s soccer and the future of United States soccer. Christi Rampone would have gone off into the sunset with another title. It would have been great, but that all fizzled away when Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath missed the first three takes while Japan hit in three of four shots to win.

The Americans didn’t win, but they put on a show that couldn’t have been scripted any better.

Your David in the match, Japan, looked the part. They were ranked No. 4 in the world going into the Cup, but they were hardly that formidable. In two friendly affairs with the United States in May, Japan lost 2-0 both times. In the final, the United States overmatched them for most the contest. Japan fell behind twice and came back with late goals – in regulation and extra time – to force penalties.

In the role of Goliath, the United States played their part equally as well. Not even two minutes into the match, the U.S. Women’s National Team showed they were in the final to not only win, but destroy Japan. But, for some reason, they couldn’t finish their chances. Morgan scored in the 70th minute, but the States laid back, hoping to stick to that lead to victory instead of pushing for more. In extra time, Wambach put the U.S. in front 2-1 in the 104th minute. However, with less than three minutes to go, the United States allowed the much-smaller Japanese to beat them to a 50-50 ball on a corner and score the equalizer. But even through these frustrating goals that pulled the match even, the United States still appeared to be the stronger side.

As we all know, David is victorious over Goliath. That was the case for this match, with Japan persevering to beat the United States. Even with the frustration of defeat, the drama that the United States brought to the world over the course of four weeks brought plenty of interest to women’s soccer.

And just when we thought this may be great for Women’s Professional Soccer. Think again. It seems that the interest only lasted for a day after the Cup final, and will soon phase itself out like any breaking story. WPS is still incognito, and looks as if it will remain that way for the foreseeable future.

Two questions arise when you consider that the United States is just fair-weather fans when it comes to women’s soccer: 1) What would a US victory have done to help women’s soccer in the States? And 2) Accepting the US loss, but their extremely suspenseful run throughout the tournament, what will it take to grow interest in women’s soccer?

Giovanni Albanese Jr. is the sports editor for Tri-City Voice newspaper in Fremont, Calif. He covered FC Gold Pride in 2009 and 2010. You can contact him on Twitter @GAlbaneseJr.

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