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Soccer

Sunrise Is Way Too Early To Be Crying For The USWNT

4:14 PM EDT on August 7, 2023

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 06: USA players react as Sophia Smith of USA misses her team's fifth penalty in the penalty shoot out during the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Round of 16 match between Sweden and USA at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium on August 06, 2023 in Melbourne / Naarm, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

The first memory I have of the U.S. Women’s National Team is a lot like what I saw early Sunday morning. I was just eight years old the summer of 2011, but when Saki Kumagai scored that last penalty in the World Cup final to defeat the USWNT, I understood that the American team, which played with passion and grit, meant something more to me than just 11 people playing football. The players’ distraught reactions to that slim loss represented the heartbreak of a team that held itself and its country to the highest possible standard: perfection.

Luckily for me, perfection is what I got after that gut-wrenching loss in 2011, with two whirlwind wins in the following World Cups. For better or worse, knowing only winning makes a young soccer fan forget that losing is even an option. Indeed, over the past four years, Vlatko Andonovski has worked tirelessly to remind me that losing was indeed a very real possibility, but I always felt some level of pesky hope that on the world’s largest stage, an undeniable, fierce historical force would propel my beloved USWNT to victory yet again. You can call me a believer, or you can call me delusional; what sports fans aren’t a little bit of both? 

In the wake of our elimination on Sunday, critiques are coming from all sides. There are the bigots gleefully claiming vindication for hating these players because they advocate for human rights. There are the well-meaning but ill-informed armchair experts who have no idea who to blame. And then there are those who have followed this U.S. team for years, tracking its frustrating decline and yelling about it to anyone who will listen. 

Assuming you are not one of the first group of people (if you are, please read this factually spotty but absolutely correct in spirit Twitter thread), you believe in that needlessly sticky issue which has defined this team for so long: all footballers deserve to be paid equally. Equal pay is about human dignity and financial liberation, and it’s also about fairness. If you believe in fairness, and you watched the USWNT’s four games in this World Cup, you are perhaps coming around to the hard reality that U.S. simply did not deserve to win the World Cup—not as one nation, one team. Not until that heartbreaker against the Swedes did the USWNT play like a team; despite the players’ outrageous individual talent, 11 individuals cannot win a World Cup. 

And that’s the tragedy of it all, really. These players, who have worked harder than any normal person can imagine to earn a spot on this roster, could have won this World Cup had they been supported by a proper tactical system. We saw how much better the team played when they belatedly changed formations from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1, and it was painfully obvious that some of Andonovski’s preferred players served the team much better from the bench than on the field.  

For these reasons and more, I’m sad. I’m sad for Alana Cook and Ashley Sanchez, young phenoms who had a vital role on the USWNT leading up to this World Cup but inexplicably never saw any minutes on the big stage. I’m sad for Naomi Girma, the 23-year-old wonder who stepped into Becky Sauerbrunn’s mighty legacy with sensational success. I’m sad for Lynn Williams, Sofia Huerta, and Kristie Mewis, all of whom have had tremendously difficult journeys on their way to this roster, and who may age out of their prime by the time 2027 rolls around. I could go on. 

The USWNT sucked, and then sucked less, but still went home. That’s sports; had the Swedes lost, surely a young Swedish writer would be writing a bløg similar to this one. 

Thankfully, sadness is not the only thing I feel. I feel grateful to get to root for players who are also role models who seize the platform their talent has given them as an opportunity to make the world a better place. I feel a sick satisfaction that white supremacists—an entire coalition of chud reactionaries, really—feel so threatened by a team that doesn't and won't pretend to represent their repulsive values that they are screaming themselves into a tizzy. I feel relieved that at least I’ll get to continue to enjoy watching most of the USWNT players play for their club teams during an already exciting NWSL season

But more than anything I feel hopeful. I’m a USWNT fan, after all. Even after perhaps the most devastating type of loss a reigning champion could suffer, I still have that stubborn, stupid belief that this team and these players will turn things around. Deep in my bones, I believe that after He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named gets the boot, a new coach (Laura Harvey, please!), a restructuring of the youth soccer system, and a renewed focus will develop the ridiculously talented U.S. player pool into the new-and-improved best team in the world. I’ve been spoiled to see my team win the World Cup twice in my short life, and I can’t wait for the day when they deserve to win it all again.

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