USWNT welcome pressure after surviving grueling distractions

EDMONTON, Alberta —

A week ago, they had questions – serious questions that ate into the essential characteristic that defines this United States women’s national soccer team: The ability to thrive under pressure. A definite change has come over the U.S. team now that they’re through to the Round of 16. You can see it in their faces. You can hear it not just in what they’re saying, but how they’re saying it.

"I think that, obviously, there’s been talk about this "Group of Death," are we going to come out first, teams are saying are we good enough to win it. I think we all have to remain positive and confident. It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish,” Carli Lloyd said Thursday.

Three games into this pressure cooker, the U.S. is starting to genuinely open up into this 2015 Women’s World Cup and believe that, indeed, they could win. That wasn’t the case a week ago, when Australia rattled them and Sweden drew them into a scoreless draw and Nigeria loomed like some high-speed train seeking to derail them. They were worried. They exuded not confidence but nerves. The map ahead was a mess, if it existed at all.

All of that is over now. Alex Morgan is back up top with Abby Wambach, and no matter how many times everyone wants to slam the U.S. for depending on the direct style of play Wambach brings to the U.S. side, this tandem is the U.S. attacking identity.

Maybe the synchronicity that Morgan and Wambach have together is rubbing off. The entire team says it’s forming a new unity – one that only comes in the middle of a World Cup. It’s that different in this once-every-four-years environment. It is something so few understand or experience, but the U.S. is relieved they are starting to feel the positive shift.

"I think it just comes from the experience of playing through that group play, knowing you’re in the group of death, all that pressure and stress and realizing, hey, we came out on top. We did what we needed to do,” Christie Rampone said. "Now it’s more getting together as a team and a unit because you start to rely on each other and it becomes more of a team atmosphere, which I think it then starts loosening up.”  

We measure things on Richter scale proportions a lot of times, especially in sports, and especially this U.S. women’s soccer team. They hold a singular place in the firmament of sporting achievement, so they are never just human, they’re stars, icons, supersized role models, symbols.

But now, the pressure has become welcome fun. The nerves have calmed. Their inner voices are starting to sound more familiar. The talk is about respecting Colombia, the knockout round opponent that the U.S. plays on Monday at Commonwealth Stadium. The talk is also about going all the way.

"With each game, we’re getting better individually and better as a group," Lloyd said. "I have no doubt in my mind that we’ll be peaking at the right moment. That’s the most important thing. It would be a different story if we were creating no chances at all. Then I think I’d be a bit worried, but we’re creating a lot of chances. We’re putting enough in to get it done right now but I think as we go further and further, we know the importance of it. We know we may have to put two in the back of the net."

This may not sound like earth-shattering news. After all, this is a very confident and powerful team that has always been called a top, if not the top, contender for any soccer quest. But these past months have really rattled the identity and confidence of the U.S. team – and with good reason. These past four years haven’t been a picnic either, except for some small solace of winning the 2012 Olympics.

By now we all know there’s parity in the rest of the world of women’s soccer. We all watched as new coach Jill Ellis switched up players and positions to test the depth and expand the tactical ability of the team. And, as always, inheriting the legacy built by the 1999 World Cup winning U.S. squad is a weighty load, especially when a watchful world likes to remind you that you’re no longer the undisputed champions of the world.

But having come through a grueling test in the Group of Death in this 2015 Women’s World Cup, the U.S team has arrived in Edmonton looking as if someone removed a boulder off its back. It’s as if 2011 is no longer a bad dream they sadistically replay in their minds over and over again, regretting the shocking loss to Japan on penalty kicks in a game Hope Solo and Wambach firmly believe they gave away.

It’s as if the struggle to regroup under Tom Sermanni never happened, or the weirdness that took place in Portugal in 2014, when the team tanked and Sermanni was abruptly fired. It’s as if all the confusion created when Ellis had to accelerate a U.S. Soccer game plan to try players in new roles and different tactical schemes has finally, thankfully, subsided.

"For me, as well, personally, it’s been tough,” said Lloyd, who took some incoming psychic shrapnel when former coach Pia Sundhage told The New York Times that, essentially, Lloyd’s performance depended on the amount of confidence she felt her coaches put in her.

The message may have hit close to a nerve for Lloyd, and it only exacerbated some of the struggle she has had adapting to the roles Ellis has asked her to play this past year. It also came just as the team tried to ward off a slew of negative press and reaction from a story about Solo’s domestic violence arrest a year ago – a case that had been dismissed but has found new light courtesy of sealed documents coming into public view. The team said it was in a bubble, but no one will deny the emotional toll all that took as the team prepared for their first 2015 Women’s World Cup game.

"Those three games are in the past. When you reach the final, no one talks about the group games, so for us, we’re moving forward. We know that we can be better. Individually we can be better. There’s more in us and that’s the most exciting thing. We can still push on and we can still give more,” Lloyd said, smiling genuinely for the first time in a while.

Indeed, it is now a new tournament. It is a new start. And the team is embracing that reality. For the first time since maybe 2011, when Megan Rapinoe and Wambach hooked up on the most famous goal in Women’s World Cup history to defeat Brazil in the quarterfinals, the U.S. women’s national soccer team believes, again, it can win a World Cup.

"Obviously our goal is to win this, so we’re looking at the big picture, like, seven games. We say that out loud because we want to believe it. If you don’t believe it you’re never going to feel it, you’re never going to put yourself out there,” Rampone said.

Maybe the most amazing thing about this 2015 U.S. Women’s World Cup team is that deep down, within themselves, they faced their own mortality and self-doubt. Now, suddenly, a shift has taken place. It’s game on. They’re ready.