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A Year Like No Other

There have been many great years in the history of the U.S. Women’s National Team programs, but never before have so many new variables come together to produce success on the level that was seen in 2008.

With a new coach, a new philosophy and renewed energy, the U.S. Women’s National Team put together one of – if not the – best year in the long history of the program. In the 24th year of competition for the U.S. WNT, the team broke a hallowed record, won a historic gold medal and saw new players emerge to help take the program to new heights.

Consider this: Never before had the U.S. team finished a year ranked No. 1 in the world. Sure, the team had held the top spot on several occasions since FIFA started the women’s rankings in July of 2003, but it had always been the Germans who celebrated the New Year at the top spot. Germany won the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2003 to earn them top honors. In 2004, the U.S. won the Olympic gold, but Germany still held onto the top spot. The Germans sat at number one until the middle of 2007 when the U.S. took over after a highly successful Algarve Cup in Portugal, but of course, the Germans won the 2007 WWC, to get back to the top. This brings us to 2008, as the U.S. once again ascended to the top ranking after the Algarve Cup, but this time held it after the gold medal triumph in Beijing.

The U.S. team lost just one match in 2008, a feat which actually wasn’t that unique. The team didn’t lose a game in 2005 or 2006, and lost just once during three other calendar years. What made this year special was the U.S. took that one loss in the opening game of the 2008 Olympics and famously rebounded to win the gold medal. Of course, it was the wins not the losses that distinguished 2008 as the U.S. team won a record 33 matches, shattering the old victory mark of 28 set in 2004. The team also set a record for best winning percentage in a calendar year (.944) in which the team played more than 10 matches, tying just two games, one of which turned into a penalty kick win over Canada at CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying.

A mark of a great coach is putting players in the position to succeed. On that point, U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage certainly excelled. It can be argued that almost every regular starter on the U.S. team had, if not her best year in a National Team uniform, then certainly one of her best. Sundhage brought a new ball-possession attacking style to the U.S. team, which took a while to adapt to the change, but when it did, produced soccer that was at times as entertaining as it was successful.

Several players set career highs for goals in a calendar year, including leading scorer Natasha Kai. The Hawaiian came into 2008 off a 2007 campaign in which she struggled to find the net, but pounded in a career-high 15 scores, almost tripling her career output to that point. Even though she played mostly a reserve role at the Olympics, Kai came off the bench in the quarterfinal to score one of the USA’s most important goals of the year, nailing the winning header in the 2-1 overtime victory over Canada.

Lindsay Tarpley, who saw her minutes primarily at outside midfield, a spot she had rarely played before, scored 12 goals, four better than in any of her five previous years for the USA.

Midfielder Carli Lloyd, who scored two monumentally important goals in the Olympics, almost doubled her career total in goals, pounding in nine, to go along with nine assists (which also nearly doubled her career total heading into 2008). Then, to cap off the year, she won her first U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year Award.

Heather O’Reilly scored 10 times, bettering her previous career high of seven goals in 2007 while also dishing out 10 assists to become just the sixth player in U.S. history to record at least 10 goals and 10 assists in a calendar year.

Perhaps the most remarkable story might be that of Angela Hucles, who came into 2008 having scored just five goals in her career and not one since 2004. She found the net eight times, including a career-defining four goals at the Olympics, where she sealed her play in National Team lore while filling in for the injured Abby Wambach and helping the U.S. adapt its attack with golden results.

Defensively the U.S. team was stellar. Led by central defenders Kate Markgraf and Christie Rampone, who set a record for most minutes played in a calendar year and became the first player ever to play more than 3,000 minutes in a season (3,066), the Americans allowed just 17 goals in 35 matches, 11 from the run of play, four from set plays and two on own goals.

You want a sign of good defense? The U.S. won 12 games this year by 1-0 scores (three against Brazil) and another five matches by just one goal.

The play of goalkeeper Hope Solo certainly contributed to those stats as she logged a record of 23-1-0 in 2008 and upped her career record to 60-5-8 while coming up huge in the gold medal game to shut out a Brazilian team that had rolled over Germany 4-1 in the other semifinal.

Another sign of an excellent year was the emergence of young players who not only contributed greatly in 2008, but could help keep the U.S. among the world’s elite for years to come.

Forward Amy Rodriguez, who scored two game-winning goals against Brazil this year, scored six goals in her first WNT campaign and played a vital role in the Olympics, coming off the bench in the first match and starting the final five games in China. She also had seven assists, showing her ability to get around defenses and find her teammates.

Forward Lauren Cheney, who was named to the Olympic Team only after the injury to Wambach, ended up playing in the final three matches in China, including 60 minutes in the gold medal game where she played a part in the sequence that led to the game-winning goal.

Rugged defender Rachel Buehler and talented midfielder Tobin Heath earned their first caps in 2008, with 23 and 17 appearances, respectively, while goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart tripled her all-time appearances, playing in 12 matches and allowing just one goal.

But more than anything, it was a team effort in 2008. Fifteen different players scored a goal for the U.S. this year, one of the highest totals in the history of the program. The U.S. team lost three key players to injury in the months leading into the Olympics, as along with Wambach, Cat Whitehill and Leslie Osborne went down, but the team rallied together and players stepped up, earning the goal medal without one of the best forwards in the world.

Could Brazil have won without Marta? Could Germany have won with Birgit Prinz? We’ll never know, but we do know that the U.S. team won all five tournaments it entered in 2008, including the prestigious Algarve Cup and Peace Queen Cup, while culminating with the Olympic gold medal.

In 2008, the USA’s record against teams ranked in the top-12 in the world was 16-1-1, an impressive record by any standard.

Adding a bit of extra holiday cheer to the year were several awards for the U.S. women, most notably the Best Team Performance for the USA’s 1-0 victory over Brazil in the Olympic gold medal game and the Best all_access video for Tobin Heath’s WalkAbout.

To top off the year, the U.S. became the first country to make three FIFA women’s finals in the same year, winning the gold medal at the Olympics, advancing to the final at the U-17 FIFA Women’s World Cup in New Zealand and winning the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Chile.

The triumph in Chile gave the U.S. two women’s world championships in same year, the first country to accomplish that feat as well.

What awaits the U.S. women in 2009? Well, it will surely be a different kind of year with less international matches due to the start of the WPS, the new women’s professional league. But with the WPS comes a much deeper pool of players competing in a highly competitive environment, one that enabled Shannon Boxx and Abby Wambach to ascend to the National Team during the WUSA. Clearly, there are exciting times ahead for Sundhage and the U.S. Women’s National Team.