World catches up to US, literally

As the American women stood in stunned disbelief last summer, watching penalty kicks miss their mark and then watching Japan hoist the World Cup trophy, there seemed to be only one plausible explanation for what had just happened.

It was destiny.

Japan, a country ravaged by an earthquake, needed the victory more than the United States did and therefore . . .

Or so the thinking went as the Americans saluted the winners and did their best to shrug their shoulders at the defeat.

In truth, though, this wasn’t destiny.

It was denial.

What crushed the United States was not losing the World Cup — it had happened twice before, when it was upset at home by Germany and then by Brazil, in the 2003 and 2007 semifinals. It was losing the way it did, blowing a pair of late leads and then being the team that crumbled under the weight of a penalty shootout.

It was a tangible sign that the American formula of outworking everyone was no longer working out.

“We’ve mainly over the years relied on athleticism and our fitness,” United States midfielder Carli Lloyd said recently. “But the times are changing, and we can’t rely on that anymore. Japan came back and beat us, and we pride ourselves on being the fittest team in the world but that didn’t get it done.”

What the loss did was further highlight how many more nations are catching up to the United States — and not just soccer-playing countries such as Brazil, Germany and France, but nascent ones such as Japan and, closer to home, Canada.

The United States lost to Mexico in qualifying, forcing it to win a playoff against Italy just to reach the World Cup. Then there was the World Cup loss to Sweden, the Americans’ only defeat in group play. That followed harrowing escapes against Brazil and France, which largely outplayed the United States.

These countries, many of which lagged far behind the United States a decade ago, have closed the gap quickly — in a single generation — thanks to an emphasis at the youth level on technical skills. Now, instead of being overrun by the United States, countries such as Japan, France and Brazil have borrowed the Barcelona model — moving the ball around the field with quick, precise and clever passes that wear out the team that does not have possession.

How the Japanese, who are 2-1-1 against the United States in the past 12 months, managed this was apparent to some American players on a recent trip to Japan. They saw a sight that, until recently, would have been unusual in the United States: groups of teenagers playing four-on-four games on a small field with nets that were smaller than hockey goals.

These types of games help train the brain as well as the feet.

“You can’t take plays off,” Lloyd said of the benefit of playing in tight spaces. “You always have to be engaged in the game. You always have to know when you get the ball where your next pass is going to be. If you play eight vs. eight, 11 vs. 11, you can sit there and look up into the sky for a couple minutes and not receive the ball. We saw the younger players training, and they’re always engaged. That’s what it’s all about.”

Midfielder Lauren Cheney, arguably the most skilled American player, concurred.

“You’re told you’re fast, so you go run and you don’t really work on technique and the other aspects of soccer,” Cheney said. “I think that hurts. I never had a personal trainer growing up. I never had my parents have me on weight programs. I think we’re forgetting to have a child fall in love with the game first and then train them.”

United States Soccer officials have recognized the problem in recent years and have taken steps in the right direction, such as de-emphasizing games in favor of training sessions (and smaller-sided exercises), but changing the curriculum is easier than changing the culture.

It is there that the emphasis on results over development does not die easily.

This often starts with parents, who are more likely to choose their child’s club based on how much it wins than anything else. And what wins, generally, at younger levels are size and speed.

“I don’t think (competing) is something we should be ashamed of as Americans because it’s truly gotten us far in many sports, in women’s soccer especially, our will to win,” said Heather O’Reilly, an outside midfielder for the national team. “But I think that parents do need to be a little less short-sighted and see longer term in the development of their child . . .

"I don’t want to say those wins don’t matter because they do — it gets ingrained — but they need to have the long-term vision that technique is important, that seeing the game in a broader sense is important. I hope that parents are encouraging players to watch soccer because I don’t think that’s happening quite enough in the US, and I think they can learn a lot from the best.”

O’Reilly, in many respects, represents the type of player who is quickly becoming an anachronism. A classic winger, she uses her speed to carry the ball down the flank and then whip in a cross. She plays with great energy and effort, but technical ability has never been her strong suit.

Asked how often she played short-sided games growing up, O’Reilly, 27, laughed.

“That’s a great question,” she said. “I didn’t. I went into college at (North Carolina, a perennial powerhouse) and couldn’t really shoot with my left foot cleanly. Technique is something that takes 10 to 15 years to develop. (Lionel) Messi learned that at 12 years old and started layering those patterns of technique in his brain, and we’re all here to celebrate them years later.

Coach Pia Sundhage has slowly been pushing the United States toward that type of play, with a greater willingness to string passes together than bypassing the midfield with long balls out of the back. It is not without irony that the United States played its most artistic game of the World Cup in the loss to Japan.

How far the United States can carry that approach in the Olympics, which will begin Wednesday in Glasgow against France, remains to be seen.

Forward Abby Wambach, midfielder Shannon Boxx and defender Christie Rampone — savvy, tough-minded veterans who are likely playing their last tournament for the national team — have proved they can win their way. But perhaps not anymore.

Whether the United States can win putting the ball at the feet of Cheney and dynamic forward Alex Morgan, and moving it around the field, one short touch at a time, is not so certain, either.

When to hold on? When to move forward?

It is a tricky riddle confronting the United States, with the rest of the world closing in on a team that is not used to operating in tight spaces.