US women win gold, don’t know what they’ll do now

They got a personal shout-out from President Barack Obama,

partied with a few of the NBA players and actor Tim Robbins and

stayed up into the wee hours of the morning celebrating.

Exhausted but elated, the U.S. women’s soccer team is taking a

few days to revel in its latest Olympic gold medals – to say

nothing of the star treatment that goes with them – before heading

back home.

To what, the players don’t really know. The next major

tournament is three years away, and options to play at home are

limited with the WPS defunct and plans for a new league still in

flux.

”This has been our focus, our attention for the last few years

now,” Heather O’Reilly said Friday. ”There’s a little bit of

uncertainty right now.”

The Americans won their third straight Olympic title, and fourth

overall, Thursday night, beating Japan 2-1 in a rematch of last

year’s World Cup final and avenging the most painful loss in their

history. The victory was another showcase of their grit and

resilience, qualities that have endeared them to folks back home,

as well as a testament to their depth.

Sure, Hope Solo, Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd have been

mainstays of the team for years now. But youngsters Tobin Heath,

Kelley O’Hara and Becky Sauerbrunn played key roles in the game –

the whole tournament, really – and there’s more where they came

from. Just as they’ve been doing since the days of Mia Hamm, Julie

Foudy, Michelle Akers and Brandi Chastain, the Americans simply

retool when big-time players step away or slow down.

But that will be harder and harder as the rest of the world

catches up to the Americans. Other countries are pumping resources

into their women’s program, and the results were evident both at

the Olympics and last year’s World Cup final. After losing its

first 25 games to the United States, Japan is 1-2-1 against the

U.S. since the World Cup final, and the teams’ rivalry has the

potential of being even bigger than those with Germany, Sweden,

maybe even Brazil.

After reaching the semifinals in only its second World Cup

appearance last summer, France played in the Olympic bronze medal

game, losing to Canada.

”Having a professional league is going to be really crucial for

the continued development of our team so we not only can stay on

top, but we can keep pushing the envelope,” Wambach said. ”All

the other leagues in the world are doing that. That’s why their

national teams are even better, because these players are getting

more experienced. These players are playing 90-minute games at high

levels. If you get a number of players doing that, game in and game

out, they’re bound to get better.”

There clearly is interest in the women’s team. Most of the

country is on a first-name basis with Abby, Hope and Alex, and

their games in both the World Cup and Olympics have been big draws

– both in the stands and in front of the T.V. sets. The final

Thursday was such a big deal it drew an Olympic-record 80,203, and

Wambach said some of the NBA players passed up seats in a suite to

get closer to the field.

But translating that interest into a financially viable league

has been trickier than a bicycle kick. The WPS folded this year,

the second women’s professional soccer league to do so in the last

decade.

While some players have talked about playing overseas, U.S.

Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said this week he’d prefer

they stay at home. Among the possibilities are upgrading one or

more of the various semipro leagues in the U.S., or having an

extended residency program for the U.S. national team, with a

schedule of 25-30 games per year.

Whatever the decision, the players have to get playing time. Or

the gold medals that have become practically a birthright for the

Americans might start going to other countries.

”If I sit and think about it, there’s a little bitterness. More

than a little bitterness,” Solo said. ”It’s the times we live in,

there should be opportunities for women. We have so many young

players coming out of college and they have nowhere to go play.

They’re not quite good enough to make the national team – but they

could be in the next couple of years. But the opportunities aren’t

there for them.”

And the Americans will likely need to dip into that

up-and-coming talent pool before the 2015 World Cup, which will be

in Canada. Defender Heather Mitts has already said she is retiring.

Captain Christie Rampone has two small girls and is 37 – though she

plays far younger than that – and has said she needs time to decide

whether to keep playing or not. Midfielder Shannon Boxx is 35.

Even Wambach is not a given. Though she craves a World Cup title

and has said she intends to play through the 2015 tournament, she

turned 32 this summer and her body has begun showing signs of the

wear and tear from her fearless playing style.

”I can only be positive that there is a spot for players to

play in the future,” Solo said. ”In the near future.”

In the meantime, the Americans will do a ”victory tour,”

beginning next month. The first two games have already been

announced: Sept. 1 against Costa Rica and Sept. 16 against

Australia. Some well-deserved downtime will come after that.

O’Reilly and her husband never did take a honeymoon after their

wedding last fall, and Lloyd is craving some beach time.

But at some point, the Americans will have to figure out what

comes next.

It might present an even bigger challenge than Japan did.

”We haven’t really thought too far in advance,” Lloyd said.

”There’s a lot of missing parts, whether there’s a league – we

just heard bits and pieces about a league coming back. But we’re

going to go after it. I want to win a world championship before my

career is over. So that’s the next thing.”