Preserving the intangible: How does USWNT maintain its mental edge after Rio?

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Years of miraculous finishes projected the U.S. as the most resilient team in the world. Now, Jeff Kassouf wonders, has the rest of the world caught up?

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The essential element of magic is that only the magician knows how a trick is performed. Observers don’t get to peek at all; hence the phrase, a magician never reveals his or her secrets.

Such an ideal can make for a very insular culture. You cannot solve what you cannot see.

It is here where Brazil’s men’s soccer team, currently fighting for the only honor which has eluded the program, and the United States women’s soccer team have something in common.

Brazilians can painstakingly attest to the inability to tangibly identify their team’s woes over the past two years. Their team hit rock bottom in the semifinals of the 2014 World Cup with a 7-1 loss to Germany on home soil. Earlier this year, Brazil crashed out of the Copa America Centenario in the group stage, costing its pragmatic coach, Dunga, his job.

Brazil was long defined by o jogo bonito – the beautiful game – but that is as much about state of mind as it is a technical ability. The physical creativity is dependent upon the audacity to implement it.

Particularly over the last two years, o jogo bonito has been an afterthought. The Brazilian men, finally looking like a team worthy of the title of favorite or even contender heading into Wednesday’s semifinal against Honduras, are trying to rekindle some of this at the Olympics. But as Rupert Fryer noted for FourFourTwo last week, Brazilians don’t care about style anymore. They just want to win.

Flavio de Campos, a professor of the sociocultural history of soccer at the University of São Paulo, succinctly summarized it to the New York Times: “People pinned their hopes on this magic thing that we believe our soccer has.”

Here we find parallels with the United States women.

Specializing in the inexplicable

The U.S. women won the first Women’s World Cup in 1991. Since then, it’s been a perennial force, always in the conversation of being the best team in the world. Two more World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals followed. In 13 all-time major tournaments, the U.S. women had never finished worse than third. That’s surreal, incredible, but also slightly inexplicable.

There were so many close calls which could have – probably should have – derailed that run: The 1996 Olympic semifinal against Norway; the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal against Brazil; and the 2012 Olympic semifinal against Canada, to name a few. But every time, the Americans had their miracle. Shannon MacMillan. Abby Wambach. Alex Morgan. The U.S. never seemed short on heroines.

Wambach’s equalizer against Brazil in 2011 came in the 122nd minute; at the time, it was the latest goal ever in a FIFA competition - the type of moment so ridiculous, Ian Darke’s call on ESPN that Wambach “saved the USA’s life” hardly seemed hyperbolic. It was inexplicable.

A year later, Morgan’s goal to beat Canada came in the 123rd minute came after the Americans benefited from one of the most bizarre and rare calls in the sport – a six-second call on Canada goalkeeper Erin McLeod. That entire match was like reality show: scandalously gripping; dramatically inexplicable.

Which brings us to Friday, when the U.S. women lost to Sweden and former U.S. coach Pia Sundhage in a penalty shootout in the semifinals, bringing to a screeching halt the idea of an Olympic four-peat. The Americans outshot Sweden 26-5 on the day, claiming 64 percent of the possession while relentlessly attacking the Swedes, who held tight and counter-attacked, converting on their only shot on frame.

Friday wasn’t like the 2015 World Cup, when a U.S. team overly reliant on physicality and 5-foot-11 Abby Wambach looked listless in a scoreless draw with Sweden. This newer, younger – and many felt better – U.S. team had ideas for getting around Sweden rather than just trying to go through. The finishing, though, was lacking. Head coach Jill Ellis’ late-match roster management was curious, but it wasn’t the catalyst for the loss. What exactly went wrong?

Levelling the mental playing field

A couple highly respected people who know a thing or two about the U.S. women’s national team had interesting takes. Anson Dorrance guided the U.S. to that 1991 World Cup triumph and has won 27 NCAA titles at the University of North Carolina. He spoke last week of the Americans’ “indefatigable human spirit” which pulls through in these pressure-packed moments. That seemed to be lacking on Friday.

“I can’t put my finger on it, but for some reason we just didn’t play dynamically,” Dorrance said of the loss. “We looked sluggish. We just didn’t look ourselves.”

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Relief proved fleeting Friday in Brazil. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

Hands down. The USA should be the best in the world. Why aren't we is the question? Not technical ability. Not tactical awareness. It's the basic of all qualities that champions hold in their hearts and expel with every breath #‎mentality #‎itseparates #‎itreveals #‎weneedit

- Michelle Akers, on Facebook, after the USWNT was eliminated by Sweden.

Michelle Akers, arguably the greatest player in the history of the sport, certainly felt that she could put her finger on what went wrong. She posted to Facebook after the United States’ loss, stating that she saw a team which wasn’t right mentally.

Mentality has long been the explanation for all of the U.S.’ breathtaking moments. It’s among the most cliché terms in all of sports. Death, taxes and the American mentality. The entire world looks to the U.S. women for this aspect of its game.

France, yet again lacking in this very category in 2016 – we think, anyway – has spent years playing against the U.S. to figure out how to replicate its mental toughness. Guess what? The French, whose quarterfinal exit marked the fifth times in five years the team fell short of the top-three at a major tournament, has found it tough to replicate what it can’t see. It’s far easier to assess tangible qualities: ball skills, tactics, speed. Mind-reading, as best we know, isn’t commonplace for mankind.

Was there a lack of killer instinct from the U.S. women at these Olympic Games? It certainly could be argued, with mental lapses costing the team against Colombia and an inability to finish putting it in the situation it was in against Sweden. But even in that game, the team scored a 77th minute equalizer. If the penalty shootout went the other way, the U.S.’ relentlessness would have been back in focus.

And it’s certainly plausible that a team with 11 players making their Olympic debuts could lack that edge without even knowing it. But only four of Ellis’ 18 players in Rio were new to the team that won the 2015 World Cup.

It’s also dangerous to assume anything about what’s inside someone’s head. There’s a slippery slope of hypothetical diagnoses. Were they complacent? Unlikely, but you never know. Did this long equal pay fight distract them? Ludicrous, but equally likely, in a subconscious way when you jump on this slippery slope, any diagnosis seems possible.

This U.S. team will have to live with three years of these sorts of questions before it gets another crack at a major tournament. Does the team still have that edge? Has the world, long caught up technically and now physically, finally cracked that indefatigable human spirit of the Americans?

In truth, it’s impossible to say. History may portray Friday’s loss as an aberration – a rare one-off in the history of U.S. magic. Much like magic, though, it’s hard to assess what you can’t see.

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Jeff Kassouf is the editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @JeffKassouf.