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Tobin Heath And Christen Press Offer A Dose Of Sanity This World Cup

10:17 AM EDT on August 4, 2023

This World Cup has made longtime dreams for women’s soccer a reality. The 32-team tournament has had upsets galore, signaling growth among teams who have historically suffered from underinvestment and therefore have not been regarded as a threat by bigger names. Match broadcasts have been hitting record numbers, despite the host nations’ locations being hugely inconvenient for half of the globe. But one underrated highlight of this World Cup is the burst of media coverage within the USWNT's orbit. 

Established platforms like Men In Blazers, ESPN, Fox, and Today have had a variety of recent ex-national teamers like Sam Mewis, Ashlyn Harris, Ali Kreiger, Heather O’Reilly, and, unfortunately, Carli Lloyd provide their own input, but those gigs are neither a surprise nor optimized for fresh insider commentary. There is only so much ground any person can cover in a TV soundbite.

I’ve written about some of the dedicated indie media who have made strides in recent years and built communities that funded them going to the World Cup itself. But this tournament has also fostered player-led productions, and one in particular really stood out this week: The RE—CAP Show, hosted by Tobin Heath and Christen Press. (The 91st, hosted by Midge Purce and Katie Nolan, is also excellent and well worth your time!)

Whereas indie media is providing critical coverage and analysis, former USWNT players can offer genuine insight, especially when they have creative control and aren't hemmed in by the limitations of a TV segment or radio time slot. This was put into stark relief in the days since USWNT’s disastrous performance against Portugal on Aug. 1.

During and after that game, former USMNT member Alexi Lalas and Lloyd used their platform on Fox to criticize individual players’ performances, question their mentality and priorities, and shame them for celebrating making it through the group stage. They were the type of hot takes expected of a certain brand of sports TV—short and pithy and sure to go viral—but they didn't truly answer the question of what actually happened here.

In glaring contrast stand the caring, generous, tactically-sound ideas put forward by Heath and Press on the RE—CAP Show. The pair launched their World Cup show as part of the lifestyle brand they created with Megan Rapinoe and Meghan Klingenberg in 2019. With ownership comes editorial freedom, and instead of using that to stir controversy, so far they've offered much-needed vulnerability and tactical acumen—with the help of an excellent slew of guests. 

In their most recent episode, Heath and Press approached the controversy spearheaded by Lloyd, their former teammate, head-on. Press shared that she wholeheartedly disagreed that the team’s mentality has changed, saying “it is so ingrained in us through the ages.” Then she did what the RE—CAP Show has been so good at: She went deeper. If the USWNT was more overtly displaying the aggressive, dog-eat-dog mentality Lloyd was discussing, “Is that enough? Is the U.S. mentality enough to win us a World Cup with where the modern game is?” In this way, she challenged Lloyd's entire premise, totally changing the framework of the controversy.

Heath followed Press’s thoughts with yet another aspect that only a long-form, player-led show could bring: A peek behind the curtains of what it’s like to be on the USWNT during a World Cup campaign. “That’s exactly how Carli is. That’s what she brought to the U.S. Women’s National Team. That’s what”—and this is why I add that Press and Heath are generous in their commentary—“made her great.” Heath then went on to say that Lloyd was just one of many strong personalities in the U.S. locker room, and that clashing of attitudes is what drove the team to flourish. This, they assure viewers, has not changed. 

Heath and Press do more than just offer their own insights. They also bring in guests to break down the tactics of the games. In a conversation with Wales international and OL Reign stalwart Jess Fishlock, Heath articulated the USWNT’s core issue perfectly. “How do you get these caliber of individuals that are literally so good and make them look so bad? You put them in a situation where it's impossible for them to play; it's impossible for them to do the things that they're special at.” See how she doesn’t point fingers at any particular player, or put the weight of their shitty coaching on them? Heath and Fishlock dove deep into footballing strategy, and came up with some legitimately illuminating tweaks the U.S. should make tactically. It was both more pleasant and more constructive than anything that has come out of Lloyd’s mouth. 

The comfort provided by having total control over the show has also nurtured genuine personal vulnerability from Heath, Press, and their guests. The most profound instance yet came in the same episode with Abby Dahlkemper. The trio discussed the culture of abuse that ran rampant in the NWSL for almost a decade before groundbreaking reporting in 2021. Press and Dahlkemper had both played for coaches responsible for such abuse: Rory Dames and Paul Riley, respectively. 

Press detailed that while playing under Dames in Chicago, she didn’t realize just how toxic the situation was until Heath encouraged her to leave the club. “I had this whole complex of like, I can’t leave the girls, I can’t leave the girls. I tried to fix everything from the inside and I thought I was the one who could stand up. I was trying to make it better and Tobin was like, ‘You are not well. You need to leave.’” 

Dahlkemper said she had a similar experience at her club, the North Carolina Courage, which was having a wildly successful few years. “Personal and team success kind of hides the bad behavior,” she said. “I've had success under a coach that has just been so abusive and has done so many horrible things that it's hard not to look back and be like shoot. It feels a little grimy to me … It’s a total guilt,” Dahlkemper reflected. 

This is the first time in my memory that active players have bluntly discussed what it was like to play under the abusive coaches fired in 2021. Had they left the conversation at that—a discussion of deeply personal trauma—dayenu. But Press and Dahlkemper tied their own experiences into the systemic issues of financial disempowerment that have tormented the league and indeed the world.

Press explained it succinctly. “The national team has kind of a monopoly on the dream because of the financial structure. For me, scoring goals in club meant I get to go into [national team] camp which means I actually have a job that I can support myself with,” she said, referring to the gap in pay for USWNT players and regular league players due to the allocation system. Dahlkemper offered a peek into what that kind of pressure does to a person: “I too was walking on a tightrope, being like I cannot fall off of this. I need to do the right things and perform how he wants me to and play how he wants me to because I’m getting called into the national team.” 

Press summed the conversation up: “Financial liberation of women is the social liberation of women because when we have access to resources and money we can protect ourselves.”

So, if you’re hesitant to watch the World Cup games in Spanish for fear of missing out on commentary, fear not: the RE—CAP SHOW is an impressive production that offers exemplary soccer nerd talk and a whole lot more. It is a (hard-earned) blessing that women’s football has progressed such that we have a plethora of media coverage to choose from. Now it’s up to us to decide what kinds of coverage we want to engage with, an intrinsic declaration of what kinds of fans we strive to be.

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