NEW YORK -- For Abby Wambach and the U.S. women's soccer team, which arrived on native soil Monday from Germany after a disappointing World Cup finish Sunday against Japan, the New York homecoming was unexpected and heartwarming.
"We were walking through the airport, there was a bunch of people with flags, cheering, asking for autographs," Wambach said. "All the airport security seemed to want to have a picture with everybody; usually they're telling you not to do something."
Wambach recalled the scene while in the midst of another appreciative crowd of several hundred people who cheered as the team bus pulled up to the W Hotel in midtown Manhattan.
"Really humbling," Wambach said while holding 16-month-old Reece Rampone, the daughter of teammate and captain Christie Rampone. Like her older sister, Rylie, Reece wore a stars-and-stripes dress.
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"Truthfully, it brought my spirits up more than anything could have," Wambach said. "I'm so disappointed for my teammates, myself. I'm so disappointed for our country because I really feel we had it, and it was so close.
"Coming home to this type of reception is truly one of the best things that ever happened."
The team, she said, was still "a bit devastated for not having won, but we're trying to pick up our pieces and see the positives in all this. Obviously we wanted to bring home the Cup; we felt we played well enough to do that. Obviously, the Japanese proved to be stronger-willed in the end . . . I think we gathered a country back together again, and I think there's something to be said for that."
But the regrets will linger, said goalkeeper Hope Solo, who failed to stop three of four shots in the penalty kick shootout against Japan.
"You always wonder if there was something different that you could have done," said Solo, a Richland High School graduate. "I'll be doing that for quite some time, and I'm hoping I get out of my funk in a little bit because we have Olympic qualifications (in January) and I'm taking it pretty hard right now. Part of me wants to make sense of it all by saying it was Japan's fate."
Wambach, 31, shook off some of the blues right away.
"As soon as I got in the locker room, I started thinking about 2012, London's going to be fantastic, we've just got to qualify," she said. "You know, I just feel so strong about this team. We built belief and trust in each other that may not have been there in the past five years, so I think the things we're going to take away from this are big positives, and moving forward, I think we're going to be a tough team to beat."
Carli Lloyd figures it won't be easy, compared to the past.
"I don't think that every single team was as strong as they are now," Lloyd said. "In a couple days, we'll head back to our (professional) teams. I'll be in Atlanta. At some point, we're all going to need some rest. It's been pretty much three or four years of going straight."
Before the players get back on the field — many of them will rejoin their Women’s Professional Soccer teams — more public appearances are on tap. Solo, Wambach and Megan Rapinoe will appear on ABC’s Good Morning America today, and Solo and Wambach will be on Late Show with David Letterman at night.
Pia Sundhage took over a program in turmoil three years ago. The U.S. had lost 4-0 to Brazil in the 2007 World Cup semifinals and endured a public feud between Solo and then-coach Greg Ryan.
Long known as an athletically gifted team, the U.S. sometimes relied too much on strength and speed. With the rest of the world catching up — and the likes of Julie Foudy and Mia Hamm retired — Sundhage wanted better passing and dribbling.
Sundhage drew high praise during this World Cup for making adept substitutions and keeping things loose, serenading her team with pop songs.
Still, her comments Sunday — referring to the Japanese possession game — suggest she sees more work ahead.
“There is something to be said about the way Japan plays,” she said. “They are comfortable with the ball, and that’s good for women’s football going forward.”