There was a time not too long ago when the U.S. women could roll over opponents even when the Americans were far from at their best.
Those times are clearly gone.
Stunned in regional qualifying, the top-ranked Americans are scrambling for a spot at next year's Women's World Cup _ a tournament they've won twice. After beating Italy last weekend in the first leg of a home-and-home playoff, the Americans can advance with a win or a draw in Saturday's finale at Toyota Park.
"I think what we're going through is a lot of months of soccer. It's not so much physical fatigue as it is mental," captain Christie Rampone said Friday. "We're not stressing, we're not panicking too much. What we're focused on right now is we're not playing the best soccer (so) let's just get the job done. If we qualify ... then we'll worry about fixing the things here and there come January."
The Americans are not exactly a dying dynasty. Their loss to Mexico in the CONCACAF semifinals was their first since the opening game of the Beijing Olympics _ where they went on to win the gold medal _ and only their second since the 2007 World Cup. They've conceded 26 goals in 61 games under coach Pia Sundhage and have outscored opponents 47-6 this year alone.
But the United States is no longer the juggernaut it was in the 1990s, when Mia Hamm inspired millions of girls all over the world to lace up their cleats.
"All the nations in Europe, the world, have improved," Italy coach Pietro Ghedin said. "The big gap, it's a little bit smaller. But it is still a gap."
Much like Michael Jordan's championship Chicago Bulls or the New York Yankees in the late '90s, Hamm and her teammates were a sublimely gifted group that would stand out in any generation. Hamm. Michelle Akers. Joy Fawcett. Tiffeny Milbrett. Kristine Lilly _ the entire lineup was overwhelming.
But no team can sustain that kind of dominance, and the U.S. team is no different. As that golden generation of players was retiring, other countries were pumping more money into their women's programs. Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Costa Rica, all have put more money and effort into improving their women's teams, and the results are beginning to show.
"The best time to get a sense of that is when you lose," Abby Wambach said. "We were getting a sense of it in '04 and '07, but winning kind of blinds you in some ways, especially if you're so used to it."
After getting over the upset to Mexico, the Americans are relishing their new challenge.
It's similar to when they lost to Norway in the opener of the Olympic tournament, midfielder Carli Lloyd said. By being forced to refocus, the Americans might just become a better team.
"It's all in the mind, and you have to change your mindset," Lloyd said. "That's the most important thing: We can't dwell on the one loss. It happened. But we've bounced back from it and we're digging deep and we're showing everyone why the U.S. has the history of being the No. 1 team in the world. We find a way to win."
Ghedin doesn't doubt it.
It would be "very difficult" to face the United States at any time, Ghedin said, but Italy's job is made even tougher by the loss of forward Melania Gabbiadini, who will be sidelined again with a twisted ankle. Gabbiadini, who had six goals during European qualifying, missed last weekend's game with the ankle injury. She returned to training this week, but Ghedin said it's "impossible" for her to play.
"It's a big problem for us," Ghedin said. "It's very important for us, and she cannot play. I tried to recover her, but it's not possible."
Italy still has Patrizia Panico, who scored 10 goals during European qualifying. The Azzurre went undefeated in winning their qualifying group only to lose to France in the playoffs to determine Europe's first four qualifiers. (Germany automatically qualified as host.) It then beat Ukraine and Switzerland to earn the spot in the playoff against the U.S.
But the United States has won nine of its last 11 games against Italy and is 21-1-2 against European teams under Sundhage.
"We're going out there to win," Lloyd said. "We've got the same game plan we had the first game. We're going to go at them, we're going to create chances and we're going to get the win. We've just got to all be on the same page, work hard and get the job done together."