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Sunday, July 17, 2011
U.S. crumbles under pressure of PKs

By Roger Bennett
Special to ESPN.com

Penalty kicks giveth. And penalty kicks taketh away.

A week ago, Ali Krieger coolly slotted home against Brazil and made the American women's soccer team media darlings. This week, the same drama-loving team crumbled during a shootout in the final, missing three out of four. Before our eyes, the USWNT morphed into the penalty-phobic English men's team.

Watching the women play Russian roulette may have been easier on the eye.

On paper, penalty shootouts should last all night long. The world's top soccer players are tasked with hitting the equivalent of a barn door from a mere 12 yards away. But legendary men's stars, including Maradona, Roberto Baggio, Zico and Michel Platini, have failed at the task. Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath can add their names to this list of rogues.

The penalty shootout presents a challenge more mental than physical. It's a nerve-jamming spectacle, only tangentially connected to the 120 minutes that have preceded it. The team game is reduced to a mind game, a test of courage between two players. One trying to force the ball over the line, the other determined to prevent that from happening.

For the players, the walk from the safe cocoon of the huddle is debilitating, an endless agony to confront a single foe, live before an audience of millions. The joust can end in one of only two ways: delirium or despair. As each shot is attempted, the game theory becomes more complex and the stress rises. It's a reality compounded by the fact not one of these female players had prior experience navigating this ultimate stress test before a global audience with the stakes so high.

The irony for the U.S. is that in this final, it played its best game of the tournament. Energized by a resolute Boxx and an effervescent Megan Rapinoe, the American midfield finally executed with determination, pummeling their nervous opponents in the opening 20 minutes. On another day, the team would have ended the first half three or four goals clear, but of the 14 shots it blasted, only one was on target. The players came to rue this lack of calibration, as a dead-legged defense twice allowed its opponent to tie the game.

Credit Japan, a worthy winner favored by few before the game. The Americans' height advantage was predicted to make every U.S. corner akin to a penalty kick. But the Nadeshiko unfurled a remarkable collective performance to withstand the U.S.'s furious start. Summoning an unshakeable belief, the Japanese found a passing rhythm as their defense, stubborn and organized, grappled with Abby Wambach.

And so it came to penalties. Japan's coach, Norio Sasaki, was relaxed and beaming as he bowed to his circling team in the huddle. For the Japanese, the pressure was off. Their mission -- to bring joy to a disaster-torn nation -- lifted them. The Americans' goal -- to liberate themselves from the shadow of the 1999 team -- suffocated them.

Boxx had tipped her hand last week, turning again to the corner in which she had converted against Brazil. That the pressure is on the shooter rather than the keeper was a reality displayed by Lloyd, who blasted wildly over the net. Heath appeared as though she would have rather been anywhere in the world but at the penalty spot, limply dribbling a shot against Ayumi Kaihori, the Japanese keeper. An injured Hope Solo proved mortal as Saki Kumagai converted emphatically to etch a new name on the World Cup trophy.

But don't burn your sports bra just yet, America. The legacy of 1999 lives on. The goal of matching that team's achievement continues to make the USWNT jersey feel like chain mail. If there is a silver lining, it may be found in the journey the U.S. team experienced before our eyes. Back from the brink with such character against Brazil. Thrilling an entire nation, and causing the president himself to tweet color commentary for the final.

While the game did not end in victory, it was an epic showcase for the women's game. Skill matched suspense to show up last year's South African final for the sordid affair it truly was. The team should return to the United States with pink-headband-festooned heads held high.

Roger Bennett is the co-host of Off The Ball and appears on Futbol Frenzy on "Morning Joe" every Monday. He can be reached via Twitter: @rogbennett