Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 7, 2019

U.S. Women Played, And Won, Their Way

What is the most difficult achievement in sports? Is it something specific to a particular game, like quarterbacking the winning team in six Super Bowls, as Tom Brady has done? Is it setting a record that stands for generations, like Joe DiMaggio did in 1941, when he hit safely in fifty-six consecutive games? Is it simply being the first to do something, like Roger Bannister in the early evening of May 6, 1954? Today running a mile in less than four minutes is commonplace, but before Bannister crossed the finish line in Oxford many experts thought it was physically impossible.

Like any good sports debate, there are adherents for each of these types of achievements, as well as others not mentioned here, and what makes the argument fun is that there is no single “right” answer. But another intriguing possibility requires not just physical prowess but intense mental focus and psychological resolve. Perhaps there is no harder accomplishment on any field of play than not merely meeting, but exceeding, the enormous burden of great expectations. On Sunday in Lyon, France, the United States women’s national soccer team proved itself up to that daunting task by winning a record fourth World Cup.

As the number one ranked team in the world and the defending champion from 2015, the USWNT arrived in France for the 2019 Women’s World Cup as both the prohibitive favorite and the squad that other nations’ teams and their fans most wanted to take down. Rather than shrink from the pressure that position placed upon their shoulders, the members of the U.S. team embraced it. After the team demolished Thailand 13-0 in the opening match of the Group Stage, and followed that up with a 3-0 shutout of Chile that included a pair of goals by 36-year old Carli Lloyd, defender Ali Krieger praised the depth of the American squad by saying “We have the best team in the world, and the second best team in the world.”

Of course statements like that only served to fan the flames of those who believed the U.S. team was arrogant and unseemly, a view that had already become widespread after the Thailand game, in which players continued to celebrate each goal long after any possible doubt about the outcome had disappeared. In response to that criticism, coach Jill Ellis said “As a coach, I don’t find it my job to harness my players and rein them in, because this is what they’ve dreamed about, and this is a world championship. When you have a deluge of goals like that, it’s important. It’s a good feeling. It’s a boost of confidence.”

There were still plenty of players and coaches from other squads, and no shortage of pundits, including far too many who were in France on American passports, who saw in the initial criticism an opportunity to pile on the U.S. team’s style. It was as if being unable to find a flaw in the dominating play of the American women, critics could at least harp about their demeanor. So Megan Rapinoe was called out for racing to a corner and posing whenever she scored a goal, and her fellow co-captain Alex Morgan was roundly criticized for miming drinking a cup of tea after scoring against England in the semifinal. In the same vein Ellis was attacked for making wholesale substitutions in the game against Chile, one match after her team reaped scorn for scoring too often. Some British commentators even took the U.S. team to task for scouting out the hotel the English team was using, as a possible base for the final, before the penultimate game had been played.

It was Morgan who finally rebutted the critics, whose complaints ranged from trivial to silly, by suggesting that a double standard was in evidence. “There is some sort of double standard for females in sports,” she said. “We have to celebrate, but not too much; we have to do something, but in a limited fashion.” Morgan pointed out the sexist nature of the criticism, “You see men celebrating all over the world in big tournaments, grabbing their sacks or whatever it is. And when I look at sipping a cup of tea, I am a little taken aback by the criticism.”

But what was most compelling about this U.S. team was the obvious reality that while they were more than willing to respond to their critics, they weren’t going to allow their actions to be dictated by them. One might think that winning the previous Women’s World Cup would have bought Ellis some slack, but the coach was constantly being second-guessed. Happily, she ignored the carping and made the moves she thought best, virtually every one of which turned out well. Her players as well stayed true to their exuberant style even as they continued their march to the final through one of the toughest possible draws.

For its final Group Stage game, the U.S. faced Sweden, ranked eighth in the world. A quick score by Lindsey Horan and a dreaded own goal by Sweden early in the second half gave the Americans a perfect record heading into the Knockout Round. There the USNWT drew thirteenth-ranked Spain in the round of 16, followed by host France and England, a pair of powerhouses ranked fourth and third in the world respectively. Having successfully vanquished all comers, in Sunday’s title match the Americans took on the eighth-ranked Dutch, who won the most recent European Women’s Championship.

The determined team from the Netherlands did what no other squad had done during the World Cup, namely hold the U.S. without a goal in the first half. But sixteen minutes into the second Rapinoe put the Americans in front with a penalty kick, a score that made the 34-year old the oldest player to put one in the net in a World Cup Final. Eight minutes later Rose Lavelle, ten years Rapinoe’s junior, raced untouched up the middle of the field and left-footed the ball past a diving Sari Van Veenendaal, the Dutch goaltender. The two U.S. goals were scored by the two players whose presence in the Final was in doubt after both were injured against England.

Perhaps the greatest international tribute to the U.S. squad lies in the truth that there will probably never again be a World Cup in which the American team is so strongly favored. Other countries, especially in Europe, have invested heavily in their women’s teams to catch up to the USNWT, and the presence of seven European squads in the quarterfinals was a testament to their progress.

The American women are concerned about investment as well, both in themselves and in their game, though they have had to resort to legal action against the U.S. Soccer Federation seeking not just compensation commensurate with the men’s team, but also better training and travel conditions. Surely the many USA Soccer officials on hand in Lyon heard the chants of “Equal Pay” that poured out of the stands after the U.S. victory. Those cries were in support of a team that has doubtless inspired another generation of young women, as some of its members were inspired by the memorable U.S. victory on home soil in 1999. They were in support of a team that arrived in France bearing the burden of potentially impossible expectations, and then exceeded them.


  1. Nice post, Mike. It’s exciting to be a witness when a sport changes/the fans undergo a sea-change in thought. I hope the ladies get what they are after.

    • Thanks Allan. Change seldom comes as quickly or as cleanly as those pushing for it would like, but it does come.


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