CHICAGO (AP) – The expectations facing the US women's national team heading into the 2012 London Olympics are astronomical. You could even say they are impossible to live up to. And there are many reasons why.
The past year has not been a good one for women's soccer in the States. Between the World Cup final loss to Japan last summer and the collapse of Women's Professional Soccer , there is a growing feeling of desperation around the women's game in the US.
Marketers, fans, administrators, players and coaches are dying for something positive to happen with the USWNT, and that is an amazingly challenging atmosphere for anybody to be in.
Add in the sinking reality that stars Abby Wambach and Hope Solo are approaching the tail end of their careers, and the pressure to succeed weighs on the team now more than ever.
Asking this US team to win gold in London and "save" the game in this country is certainly not fair, but it's the point we have come to. This is the final chance for the stars of the last decade to lift the team out of the women's soccer funk of the past year.
This immense burden does not come from recent USWNT failures alone. The root of these expectations stems from more than a decade ago.
Ever since the US women won the World Cup in 1999 , the sport has been steadily growing in popularity. It is hard to properly put a cap on what that one tournament did for soccer in the US, because the impact has been felt globally.
The game was elevated massively here at home, but I think an even greater effect was that it forced other countries to step up their women's national programs. Back then, there were only a handful of countries that could realistically challenge for a World Cup title. Today, that pool of teams with the talent to go the distance has grown significantly - and it continues to increase every year.
To see the impact within our borders, just look at the growth of Major League Soccer and the men's national team as examples. Consider the massive influx of European teams that come to the United States for their preseason during the summer. Soccer in the US has been developed by leaps and bounds during the last 13 years.
However, while the women's World Cup win in 1999 had a tremendous influence on the importance of soccer in the US, not all of the effects were positive.
On the negative side, it has created an unfair bar for every future US women's national team to try and reach; the big names, their beloved status, their marketing power and the way they won on US soil, will probably never be replicated ever again.
Of course, it's great to have those high expectations because people know you're worthy of them and have the ability to reach those lofty goals. The problem is the fan base expects that magical 1999 team to reappear, and it's just not going to happen.
Women's soccer in the US is on an incredibly slippery slope right now. While the game has swelled to new proportions in popularity and prominence since 1999, lately that slope is sliding backwards for the women. We're now counting on this team to reaffirm their status as number one in the world and dominate at the Olympics.
Even if the US women live up to the nearly impossible standards placed upon them in London, there is another area of concern.
This is likely the final major tournament for veterans like Wambach and Solo. This summer could be viewed as a passing of the generations for the US women's national team. I guarantee those veterans know the value of what the London games represent for them - all pros know that their elite athletic time is fleeting. This is their last chance to prove their worth on the international stage.
While this is a last hurrah for some players, the big worry is who will fill their boots after they're gone? Talent of this magnitude doesn't come around often. The US has clearly been spoiled in the last two decades in terms of getting a star that also has marketable talent. What happens if no one steps up?
This fear is understandable, but not really necessary. Look at Saturday Night Live. For years and years folks have critiqued and overanalyzed SNL. When an excellent cast appears, the show is loved and applauded. But every five to seven years, that cast moves on, and there's always this great debate of, "is this the time that the show goes away for good?"
I think the USWNT is like SNL right now. There's a fantastic cast of stars and talent, but we know they're not going to stick around much longer. But, just like SNL, the USWNT always seems to generate new knock-out talent that is waiting patiently for the big names to move on, so they have their opportunity to shine.
Is there another Tina Fey or Solo out there for the USWNT? I'd like to think so. And maybe she'll emerge this summer in London, as the team makes their run for a third straight gold.