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The United States women's soccer team looks to be a very different team once the next World Cup play begins.
They got a personal shout-out from President Barack Obama, partied with a few of the NBA players and actor Tim Robbins and stayed up into the wee hours of the morning celebrating.
Exhausted but elated, the U.S. women's soccer team is taking a few days to revel in its latest Olympic gold medals — to say nothing of the star treatment that goes with them — before heading back home.
To what, the players don't really know. The next major tournament is three years away, and options to play at home are limited with the WPS defunct and plans for a new league still in flux.
"This has been our focus, our attention for the last few years now," Heather O'Reilly said Friday. "There's a little bit of uncertainty right now."
The Americans won their third straight Olympic title, and fourth overall, Thursday night, beating Japan 2-1 in a rematch of last year's World Cup final and avenging the most painful loss in their history. The victory was another showcase of their grit and resilience, qualities that have endeared them to folks back home, as well as a testament to their depth.
Sure, Hope Solo, Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd have been mainstays of the team for years now. But youngsters Tobin Heath, Kelly O'Hara and Becky Sauerbrunn played key roles in the game — the whole tournament, really — and there's more where they came from. Just as they've been doing since the days of Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Michelle Akers and Brandi Chastain, the Americans simply retool when big-time players step away or slow down.
But that will be harder and harder as the rest of the world catches up to the Americans. Other countries are pumping resources into their women's program, and the results were evident both at the Olympics and last year's World Cup final. After losing its first 25 games to the United States, Japan is 1-2-1 against the U.S. since the World Cup final, and the teams' rivalry has the potential of being even bigger than those with Germany, Sweden, maybe even Brazil.
After reaching the semifinals in only its second World Cup appearance last summer, France played in the Olympic bronze medal game, losing to Canada.
"Having a professional league is going to be really crucial for the continued development of our team so we not only can stay on top, but we can keep pushing the envelope," Wambach said. "All the other leagues in the world are doing that. That's why their national teams are even better, because these players are getting more experienced. These players are playing 90-minute games at high levels. If you get a number of players doing that, game in and game out, they're bound to get better."
There clearly is interest in the women's team. Most of the country is on a first-name basis with Abby, Hope and Alex, and their games in both the World Cup and Olympics have been big draws — both in the stands and in front of the T.V. sets. The final Thursday was such a big deal it drew an Olympic-record 80,203, and Wambach said some of the NBA players passed up seats in a suite to get closer to the field.
But translating that interest into a financially viable league has been trickier than a bicycle kick. The WPS folded this year, the second women's professional soccer league to do so in the last decade.
While some players have talked about playing overseas, U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said this week he'd prefer they stay at home. Among the possibilities are upgrading one or more of the various semipro leagues in the U.S., or having an extended residency program for the U.S. national team, with a schedule of 25-30 games per year.
Whatever the decision, the players have to get playing time. Or the gold medals that have become practically a birthright for the Americans might start going to other countries.
"If I sit and think about it, there's a little bitterness. More than a little bitterness," Solo said. "It's the times we live in, there should be opportunities for women. We have so many young players coming out of college and they have nowhere to go play. They're not quite good enough to make the national team — but they could be in the next couple of years. But the opportunities aren't there for them."
And the Americans will likely need to dip into that up-and-coming talent pool before the 2015 World Cup, which will be in Canada. Defender Heather Mitts has already said she is retiring. Captain Christie Rampone has two small girls and is 37 — though she plays far younger than that — and has said she needs time to decide whether to keep playing or not. Midfielder Shannon Boxx is 35.
Even Wambach is not a given. Though she craves a World Cup title and has said she intends to play through the 2015 tournament, she turned 32 this summer and her body has begun showing signs of the wear and tear from her fearless playing style.
"I can only be positive that there is a spot for players to play in the future," Solo said. "In the near future."
In the meantime, the Americans will do a "victory tour," beginning next month. The first two games have already been announced: Sept. 1 against Costa Rica and Sept. 16 against Australia. Some well-deserved downtime will come after that. O'Reilly and her husband never did take a honeymoon after their wedding last fall, and Lloyd is craving some beach time.
But at some point, the Americans will have to figure out what comes next.
It might present an even bigger challenge than Japan did.
"We haven't really thought too far in advance," Lloyd said. "There's a lot of missing parts, whether there's a league — we just heard bits and pieces about a league coming back. But we're going to go after it. I want to win a world championship before my career is over. So that's the next thing."