Continued from page 1

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.”

___

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.