Entering last summer's Women's World Cup, there were legitimate questions about just how good the U.S. Women's National Team was. Make no mistake, there was never any doubts about the talent, but during the run to the tournament, they hadn't looked like their usual dominate selves. Add to that the increased quality of other national teams, and it's easy understand why there were doubts.
Instead the USWNT overachieved to an extent, reaching the final before falling to Japan on penalties. Even when the U.S. qualified for the knockout rounds, prevailing wisdom was that they would still fail to reach the final. They struggled against Sweden in their final group stage match and finished second in their group, setting up a difficult quarterfinal matchup against Brazil.
Looking back now, we can point to that win over Brazil as the moment the belief of USWNT supporters was restored and the lofty expectations usually associated with the team returned. Abby Wambach's insanely dramatic equalizer in the 122nd minute, so brilliantly described by ESPN's Ian Darke, gave the team a moment that will live on in annals of American soccer history.
After a 3-1 defeat of Wednesday's Olympic opponent France in the semifinals, the loss to Japan came as a letdown, but one that had the blow softened by the simple fact that no one really expected the USWNT to even be in that position. It gave everyone involved a welcomed emotional crutch to deal with the disappointment of failing to secure another World Cup.
In the weeks and months that followed, women's soccer in America rode the swell of interest that the World Cup run created. The WPS finished out its season strong, with an exciting playoffs and an entertaining championship match. Stars of the USWNT had a legitimate professional league to play in and a growing level of interest that should have set the table for success in to the future. Not everything was perfect within WPS, financial issues had caused the league to lose several teams, but there was hope that the World Cup run could buoy the league and help them through the growing pains.
In general, it felt as if things were looking up for women's soccer ... and then the bottom fell out.
Within five months of the Western New York Flash winning the 2011 WPS Championship, the league suspended operations. Four months later, they closed their doors for good. It was a tremendous blow to women's soccer in the United States, and another disappointing moment in the drive to raise women's soccer to the level of respect and legitimacy it deserves.
With WPS gone, the talent dispersed, some heading overseas to play in the various European women's leagues, others remained in the US signing with the Women's Premier Soccer League's new Elite division, a Pro-Am league designed to begin to fill the gap left by the WPS.
The question remains though if the lack of a true professional level domestic league will end up hurting the national team in London. Logic says probably not, but the ramifications of WPS folding provide an interesting potential subtext to the upcoming Olympic tournament.
Is this a chance for the USWNT to find redemption? Not necessarily redemption for themselves as a group, but for the sport of women's soccer in this country.
The sport took a tremendous PR blow through the winter and spring as WPS fell apart, thanks in large part to the histrionics of Dan Borislow. Instead of being excited about a new season and looking forward to the Olympics, the stories written about women's soccer involved financial ledgers, court cases and general negativity. After all the positive vibes that has been created last summer, no one could have ever predicted such a bleak low point by the following May.
Now, the national team steps in again with a chance to put the bad memories of the last few months behind us. Once again, this group of talented and, for lack of a better term, fun players have the opportunity to put women's soccer back on the right track. It's a shot at redemption, not for the players and the team really, but for the sport. It's a heavy weight to bare, but one the personalities on this team are more than capable of carrying.
If the USWNT can rise to the occasion, it could be mean their third straight gold medal, and fourth overall since women's soccer was added to the Summer Olympics in 1996. More importantly, it would give everyone involved with and who supports women's soccer a moment to hold up, something positive to rally around moving forward. It's a chance to finally erase the bad taste left in our mouths by the final days of the WPS.
I'll contend that even if the USWNT doesn't win gold, it can still be a positive moment for the sport. Any medal would be an outstanding achievement, but as well all know gold tends to glitter just a little bit brighter in the eyes of the casual observer. More importantly, nobody loves a gold medal winner more than marketers and having the USWNT and associated players featured on a large media platform after having won gold would be a tremendous added bonus.
Whatever happens in London, the ultimate result is for women's soccer to come out a winner. Hopefully the WPSL can learn from mistakes of the WPS and the WUSA and build upon whatever momentum is created by the USWNT in London. In the end, it's about women's soccer getting the respect it deserves and getting the opportunity to showcase itself on the biggest stages. It won't happen overnight, but after all the trials and tribulations in recent months, there's no doubt it needs a boost.
The USWNT can begin providing that boost Wednesday as it begins its road to a possible third straight gold medal against France.
We'll have coverage of all of Wednesday's games, including USA vs. France, in our 2012 Olympics, Women's Soccer Day 1 StoryStream.