Shrill shrieks pierced the soft late-summer afternoon weather in Rochester, New York. They showed up the stark contrast between the women's and men's US national teams in 2012.
As the women walked onto the turf of Sahlen Stadium in Abby Wambach's hometown, the assault on the eardrums, screams of joy from thousands of teenage girls, was medically worrisome. The women had just won the Olympic gold medal for a third time in a row and were embarking on a 10-game Fan Tribute Tour around the country. That tour was followed by an unwieldy throng of mainstream media, many of them first-timers to the sport. The tour also coincided with a flurry of television commercials featuring the players. The US women came home to discover that after a widely-watched Women's World Cup in 2011 and Olympics in 2012, a number of them -- including Abby Wambach, Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe -- have become legitimate superstars.
It is apparent that the US is the only country in the world where the popularity of the women's national team outpaces that of the men. And it's little wonder: the women went 28-1-3 (W-L-T) in 32 games this year and outscored their opponents 120-21. Wambach and Alex Morgan each outgunned their opponents on their own, bagging 27 and 28 goals respectively.
Which isn't to say the men were chumps in 2012. They went 9-2-3 this year, equaling their best-ever record since 2008. It's just that laid side-by-side to the uncomplicated narrative of the women's dominance, they are chopped liver.
In spite of what their record suggests, the men experienced a host of encouraging ups and maddening downs.
There were the historic, first-ever away wins over Italy and Mexico in friendlies. And there was a glittering 5-1 thrashing of Scotland in a friendly and a dazzling first half of a World Cup qualifier against Jamaica in Columbus, Ohio, which was won 1-0. From the personnel side, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey continued to improve and impose their savvy and technical styles on the team; Geoff Cameron and Graham Zusi emerged from Major League Soccer to unexpectedly claim starting positions; and German imports Fabian Johnson, Danny Williams and Terrence Boyd at times made good impressions.
Yet for all that good, there were a great many negatives, too. A dire 0-0 draw with Canada forebode an intolerably arduous third stage in World Cup qualifying, punctuated by tiresome 2-1 and 3-1 wins over puny Antigua and Barbuda, a 2-1 away loss to Jamaica and a labored 1-1 tie with and 3-1 win over Guatemala that conspired to make you wonder if the US men are really any good at all.
The team's face and all-time leading scorer Landon Donovan, meanwhile, was mostly AWOL. Donovan was sidelined by a motivational and perhaps existential crisis. Timothy Chandler, another German-American, who was the team's revelation of 2011, played coy about his intentions, and is not cap-tied to the US - a wicked kick to the national soccer ego.
And the back line remained a problem. With the insertion of Cameron in the center and impressive run by Johnson on the left, Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo only aged another year - both are now 33. With Chandler still not fully on board - although the ever-changing word now has it he hopes to return to the fold - and Oguchi Onyewu still mired in his 3-year search for regular playing time in European club soccer, answers remain in short supply. Right now, nobody else is both in the picture and capable of doing better.
Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, predictably, doesn't take a bleak stance on 2012. "I think we can take a lot of positives from this year," he said in a recent conference call. "It's been a very successful year, but also a year of transition."
"We are looking at a year, 2012, that was extremely busy but also extremely successful," he said, listing some of the above highlights. "We had, overall, about 45 or 46 different players going through the program [49, actually]. We tried to evaluate every one of them and take a closer look at them. I think our player pool is getting bigger, which is needed."
Indeed, the player pool begs for depth. Yet, disconcertingly, however many players cycle in and out - and 49 players is a huge amount to go through in a single year - there are so very few who suggest that they have a future in the team.
While 2012 was another year of unadulterated glory for the women, the men persisted only in making one wonder if they'll ever match them.