Suddenly, their heroes had lost.
The 13 teenaged girls had gathered Sunday, July 17 to watch the United States play Japan in the FIFA Women's World Cup final. They'd been confident of a win by the United States, but Japan's equalizing goal with a little more than three minutes left in extra time deadlocked the score, 2-2. A disastrous showing of three consecutive missed shots by the U.S. to open the penalty-kick shootout allowed Saki Kumagai to give Japan an insermountable 3-1 advantange after four rounds and clinch the title.
When Kumagai's shot hit the back of the net, the girls sat in the Highland basement of Shannon Cirovski, a former player on the women's national team and a well-known local coach, screaming and blinking back tears, some looking as if they'd been punched in the gut.
The girls, who all play for Cirovski on the Soccer Association of Columbia's Under-15 United Premiere soccer team, have been riding a wave of victories similar to the one the U.S. women rode into the World Cup final.
They are headed to Phoenix, Ariz., later this month to compete in the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships for the second year in a row, after advancing out of regional play earlier this month.
The fact that their momentum until Sunday had been mirrored on the international stage by their sports role models had been important to them.
With that reality suddenly at an end, however, they looked around the room as if to gauge one another's thoughts.
"Guys, we have to win nationals now," said Imani Dorsey, 15, of Elkridge, as she watched emotion roll over the U.S. players on the large home theater screen in Cirovski's basement. "I never want to feel like that."
"This makes us more pumped to win nationals," said Jenny Gavigan, 15, of Finksburg. "It gives us more fire."
A sense of pride
Win or lose, the World Cup has helped the girls learn a lot this soccer season, said Cirovski, who played for the U.S. team in the first FIFA Women's World Cup in 1991 — the U.S. won the World Cup title in 1991 and 1999 — and whose daughter, Karli, is on the SAC team.
"It gives them a sense of pride," Cirovski said. "To be able to watch a women's soccer game on TV? I mean, that's something I never grew up with, and to be able to see these women play and play incredibly, well …it's a thrill."
"I think it's really cool," Karli said, noting that even many of her male friends watched the World Cup games in the past couple weeks.
"It's huge news now," she said. "It's kind of cool to see the change, and how everyone's talking about Abby Wambach."
Wambach, a striker on the national team, had multiple header goals in the tournament that wowed fans and pushed her team through to the final — her goal in the 122nd mniute of extra time against Brazil helped saved the Americans' World Cup dreams in the quarterfinals — where she scored yet again with her head.
Morgan Crable, 15, of Ellicott City, said it's that sort of performance from the U.S. that really touched her.
"It's fulfilling to have them prove to everybody that women are just as good as men, and that you should give them respect, because they deserve it," she said. "They're great."
Danielle Hogarth, 15, of Jarrettsville, said learning from the U.S. players' on-field play has also been a perk of the tournament.
"It's kind of interesting to watch your position," she said. "You can see how they play and how they do well in a more competitive environment."
"It's been a learning experience," agreed Sheridan Street, 15, of Columbia.
On Sunday, forward Alex Morgan, who replaced starter Lauren Cheney for the second half, gave the U.S. a 1-0 lead in the 69th minute only to watch Japan tie the score 11 minutes later on a goal by midfielder Aya Miyama.
In extra time, Wambach redirected a crossing pass with a header past Japanese goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori in the 104th minute to give the Americans a 2-1 lead with 16 minutes left. The U.S. kept the lead until it was three minutes from winning its third World Cup title. Japan's late-game pressure paid off as World Cup tournament leading scorer Homare Sawa beat U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo in the 117th minute to tie time game and send it to penalty kicks. Sawa had five goals in six games in the tournament, which was hosted by Germany.
In Cirovski's basement, slightly more than 4,000 miles from Frankfurt's Commerzbank-Arena and the World Cup final, the girls were quick to analyze the U.S. team's mistakes and how they could be avoided.
"Don't give up a goal in the last three minutes of the game!" Karli said.
"We're going to practice penalty kicks," said Isabelle Kim, 15, of Clarksville.
"You can't think you have the game," Imani said.
Cirovski, who coached the University of Maryland's women's soccer team for six seasons from 1999 to 2004, and whose husband, Sasho Cirovski, has coached the men's team there for 18 seasons, said the team's advancement to nationals has been a great thing for them.
"It's been incredible for their confidence and it's amazing for them to realize just how good they are," she said.
But the World Cup shows something more, Cirovski said: a potential for young women to go somewhere with soccer.
"It gives them somebody to emulate, somebody to look up to, somebody to see that it can happen."