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If US can't love soccer after this, it never will

US team celebrate after winning the quarterfinal match between Brazil and the United States at the Women’s Soccer World Cup in Dresden, Germany, Sunday, July 10, 2011. US team celebrate after winning the quarterfinal match between Brazil and the United States at the Women’s Soccer World Cup in Dresden, Germany, Sunday, July 10, 2011. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
By Jim Litke
AP Sports Columnist / July 11, 2011

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If Americans don't fall in love with soccer after this, well, maybe they never will.

Yes, the epic quarterfinal win by the U.S. women over Brazil featured nearly everything their countrymen hate about the "beautiful game."

They faced off against a team with better individual skills, plus an imagination and intuition about how to play that develops only over decades. They were handcuffed by lousy calls -- with no chance of appeal -- then mocked by dives and fake injuries cynically designed to steal their momentum and the little time that remained on the clock.

To top it off, after hard work and a last-gasp equalizer erased all that, their fortunes still hinged on those notoriously fickle penalty kicks.

But oh, oh, oh, that ending.

Oh, so just, if not exactly swift.

"I really don't know what to say," veteran Abby Wambach began seconds after the United States won the penalty-kick contest 5-3.

But it didn't take her long to come up with something.

"That is a perfect example of what this country is about, what the history of this team has always been," Wambach added. "We never give up."

If only this once, even the haters back in the States should be able to appreciate why the rest of the world believes there's no greater drama in sports than watching a team trying to validate its national character in a World Cup. And for a nation wearied by a fluttering economy and political paralysis, it could hardly come at a better time.

Highlights of the game were shown between innings on the large video board in Yankee Stadium, and a crowd half a world away from Dresden, Germany, erupted as if it was there. A stream of luminaries as diverse as LeBron James and GOP presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman rushed to Twitter to pass along congratulations -- humbled, one hopes, by a display of grit and teamwork that has become increasingly rare back home.

So perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that U.S. coach Pia Sundhage, a Swede, summed it up as eloquently as anyone else.

"It's something about the American attitude, and finding a way to win," she said, slowly shaking her head. "Unbelievable."

As fate would have it, the win Sunday came a dozen years to the day of the previously most famous moment in U.S. soccer history, men or women, when Brandi Chastain put her penalty kick past China's Gao Hong to win the 1999 Women's World Cup and then stripped down to her sports bra. But that moment really said more about a paradigm shift in the culture of all sports in America than it did about the culture of soccer here.

Empowered by Title IX, the women on that team had grown up as girls determined to claim their share of the ball fields and resources that were always available to boys. And with opportunities and support for female athletes advancing faster here than anywhere else, plus a talented and photogenic superstar in Mia Hamm, the U.S. women were the class of the field when international play began in earnest in 1991.

They've managed to keep their place near the top of the game, coming into this cup ranked No. 1. But the small advantages they enjoyed over a handful of rivals are gone, and the even larger ones they held over the rest of the world are drying up fast. The simple truth is that even the best U.S. players, women and men, still don't know how to play what we stubbornly insist on calling soccer and what everyone else has called football for more than 150 years.

What you won't see in the highlights from Sunday's game was how much more talented just about every Brazilian was than her American counterpart, or how they instinctively moved without the ball to create space and string together short, intricate passes to play their way out of tight spots or create chances close to the goal.

More than a style, what the Brazilians and every other power shares is a common purpose and identity, a swiftness of thought that comes from generation after generation playing one game -- and only that game -- a certain way and then passing those lessons down, in this case from fathers to daughters instead of just sons.

Here, the world game is still an afterthought. It hasn't made a deep enough dent in the sporting psyche to rank alongside football, basketball and baseball, let alone be deemed enough a priority to develop an institutional memory. The U.S. women, at least, have benefited from having access to the best athletes a rich nation of almost 300 million can produce, something that's never been true for the men's team.

Even so, whatever breakthroughs U.S. soccer teams achieved over the last few decades have been almost entirely the result of a supreme effort by a dedicated corps of players who refused to be daunted by the odds. So it was one more time Sunday, by a women's squad that was forced to play short-handed for all but a few minutes of the final hour and never gave up.

"It was a hard way to win, a hard way to lose," Wambach said finally.

"You want the better team to always win and I think the better team did win. But sometimes," she added. "it doesn't always go that way."

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/JimLitke.

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