We've been hearing, and sometimes actually seeing, how the rest of the world has caught up to the U.S. in women's soccer, and no matter how much truth there is to the notion, it doesn't lessen the blow when something thought impossible occurs.
Such as the Americans' loss Friday night to Mexico.
It was an American -- San Mateo's Veronica Perez -- who knocked out the U.S. in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying semifinal, her 27th-minute header finishing off a 2-1 triumph in Cancun that sends Mexico into Monday's regional final against Canada.
The Mexicans and Canadians, who crunched Costa Rica, 4-0, in the other semifinal, qualified for next year's WWC in Germany. The U.S. must beat Costa Rica in Monday's third-place game, then beat Italy in a home-and-home series for another berth. The Americans' failure to qualify would be disastrous and would -- absolutely should -- cost Swedish coach Pia Sundhage her job.
The U.S. has been in transition the past decade as the legends of the previous generation -- including Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy (Mission Viejo/Mission Viejo HS) and Joy Fawcett (Huntington Beach/Edison HS) -- retired one by one, the Europeans began asserting their technical superiority and the sport's growth around the globe began to mirror what had occurred in North America a generation or two ago.
Women's United Soccer Association, the 2001-03 league that brought many of the world's finest players to the U.S., eliminated the mystique that surrounded the U.S. women's team. One of the primary elements of Germany's 2003 WWC triumph was its players' realization, through their WUSA experience, that they were every bit as good -- and in some ways much better -- than the Americans.
The U.S. dynasty of the 1990s was built on traditional American strengths, athleticism and strength, the Europeans couldn't match. As the game has evolved, technical ability has become more vital, and players in the U.S. -- owing largely to culture and coaching -- cannot match the technical skills of the best players from elsewhere.
It's why Germany is the world's reigning women's power, why England and France have stepped among the top tier of women's soccer countries, why Brazil has become a world powerhouse even though they can't find full approval nor support at home, why the quick and skillful Asians -- especially the Koreans, North and South -- are become giant-killers.
The game has undergone great growth in Latin America, where soccer is still considered a men's sport and women have been encouraged to play only in the past decade. They live in a culture where futbol is important, and so they have a natural understanding of the game that we lack; it has played a large role in the narrowing of the gap.
U.S. dominance at younger age groups has disappeared. The Americans reached only the quarterfinals of the U-20 Women's World Cup, and they failed to qualify for the U-17 WWC. Mexico, which once built its teams around Americans with Mexican ancestry, are now led by native players, and more than a few of them -- especially Maribel Dominguez, a former WUSA player who scored El Tri's first goal Friday -- are exceptional players.
The U.S. has fewer world-class players than it has ever possessed. Hermosa Beach's Abby Wambach remains a dominant forward, but she's not the same player she was before breaking her leg on the eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in which the U.S. won gold. Hope Solo is the world's top goalkeeper, but she's rehabbing following shoulder surgery. Redondo Beach's Shannon Boxx (South Torrance HS) remains a force in the middle. That's it.
There are other talented players -- Heather O'Reilly and Hermosa Beach's Lindsay Tarpley, who isn't on this U.S. roster, offer important skill sets -- but it's not like it once was. We're no longer clearly the best, we're not nearly the best in certain pivotal aspects, and we can't dominate the way we used to.
And so we have results like Friday's, which nonetheless remains an aberration. The Americans have lost just twice in their last 60 games. This is the first WWC qualifying lost in U.S. Soccer history. This is the first time Mexico has beaten its northern neighbor in 26 meetings; the U.S. has outscored El Tri, 107-11.
The defeat doesn't change expectations. The U.S. still ought to make it to Germany: It beat Costa Rica, 4-0, in the group stage, and Italy isn't at the level of Germany, the Scandinavians, England or France. Once there, the U.S. will be among the favorites.
DETAILS: Carli Lloyd scored the U.S. goal in the 25th minute, answering Dominguez's third-minute opener as the Americans started slowly for the third successive game. Perez, who played at the University of Washington, netted the winner two minutes later.
Mexico has played in only one previous WWC, going 0-3 and scoring just once -- Dominguez, naturally -- at the 1999 tournament.
If the U.S. beats Costa Rica, it will play in Italy on Nov. 20 and play the home leg Nov. 27 at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill.
OH! CANADA: Christine Sinclair, Josee Belanger, Jonelle Filigno and an own goal led the Canadians, who have outscored their first four foes, 15-0, en route to a fifth successive WWC berth.