Soccer and the national team movement, here in the United States, have stumbled into very new territory Down Under, and I’m not talking about a lackluster group-stage performance. Not entirely. While the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) has failed to win World Cups and Olympic titles in the past, their rare missteps have never produced such widespread carping from former national team players.
I’d frankly prefer Carli Lloyd talk more about how World Cup debutante Portugal — ranked no. 21 in the world — completely bossed the final group game against the U.S., showing a level of tactical sophistication and skill that, by comparison, made the defending champions look like kick-and-runners. That display, to any dispassionate observer, should eventually prove the larger issue here: European sides are turning out better players, in higher volumes, because big, rich clubs Over There have finally bought into the women’s game. That means far more sustainable financial models, but also access to the professional youth academies funded and administered by those clubs. No NWSL club supports such an academy. And who can blame them: After two failed leagues since 1999, this iteration is working hard to keep the lights on.
Yet, instead of focusing on those issues — or how/why Holland and Portugal were able to stack the midfield against the defending World Cup champions, then pass rings around them — Lloyd, working the Fox crew in Sydney, chose a different tack. She objected to the U.S. game face. She questioned the dancing, smiling and selfie-taking on display, with fans and without, before and after the Portugal match.
“I’m all for positivity, but at the same time, the cheering, the dancing, I’ve got a problem with that,” Lloyd told her fellow desk jockeys. “I really don’t know if they’re upset with how they’ve played and the results of this World Cup. But I wouldn’t be happy. I know several other [former USWNT] players wouldn’t be happy with that tie. It hasn’t been good overall these [first] three games. It’s a body language thing, it’s a facial expression. Today was uninspiring. Disappointing. They don’t look fit. They’re playing as individuals and the tactics are too predictable. (They’re) lucky to not be going home right now.”
Lloyd’s voice proved one of many. Behind all the match-specific fault-finding, a whole raft of former USNWT players are calling out their juniors for messing with their legacy, and for endangering the entire future of women’s soccer worldwide apparently. Listen to Brandi Chastain on the “After the Whistle” podcast:
“This team has always been about risk taking and being bold and brave and right now, I think we haven’t been those things,” said Chastain who, erm, hasn’t appeared for any USWNT side since 2004. “So this is the time. We had a saying back then, ‘This is the team. Now is the time.’ I think they need to step up to those words because they have a lot left to give that they haven’t shown and they have to be better… We have to be better in every phase of the game. We have to be better with the ball, we have to be better in transition, we have to be better in defending as a collective, we have to be better in our mental approach and we have to be better in just respecting the game for Christ’s sake. This game deserves more than we’ve given it. It’s a beautiful game and we’ve almost bastardized the hell out of it. And I hate to say that, but that’s the truth.”
It’s almost as if Chastain feels this 2023 USWNT has failed not its fans or country, but rather its still-glittering forebears.
U.S. midfielder Lindsay Horan, one the of the few Americans technically equipped to mix it up with this new generation of Euros from a technical perspective (Rose Lavalle is the other), fired back at Lloyd. At first, I thought this quote was merely another chapter in athlete-issued bromidery. But her comments make more sense when one considers who’s issuing the attacks.
“Once we get a little bit more of that joy back and, you know, that feeling, things are going to move a bit better on the field,” Horan said. “We’re going to have more rhythm; we’re going to have more confidence… I always want to defend my team and say, ‘You have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes. You have no idea, every single training, what we’re doing. Individually, collectively.’ For anyone to question our mentality hurts a little bit. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t really care. It’s what’s going on inside of here, what’s going on inside of the team.”
What’s really going on inside and outside this team? The short answer: plenty.
Do yourself a favor and listen to, or read, this fascinating discussion The Atlantic’s Hanna Rosin conducted with USWNT alums Christen Press and Tobin Heath on the state of women’s soccer today, as the World Cup knockout rounds were set to begin. Suffice to say, Press and Heath don’t recognize the developmental issues detailed above, and elsewhere (read Dr. Andrei Markovits new book for a thorough detailing of how differently women’s soccer has evolved in the U.S. and Europe; see my review here).
At one stage, Rosin offered: “There is no drama in dominance. For women’s soccer to truly become a global sensation, the U.S. needs worthy rivals.” Yet Heath and Press, who co-host their own YouTube series called “The RE-CAP Show,” were having none of that.
“No, no, no. I see what you were trying to do there,” Heath said. “But, no, absolutely not. I still think the U.S. Women’s National Team are torchbearers for not just the fight to increase investment in women’s football, but for all of pay equity, globally. I think the U.S. Women’s National Team being successful is the No. 1 driver in our sport globally.”
That’s not exactly a delusion of grandeur, but it’s certainly grandiose. Suddenly, the carping of so many former USWNT players is recast. They are making larger points. The discussion continued from there:
Rosin: Just indulge me, though… What if it was another team that won? A surprising team. It would be so exciting. And then women’s sports would just take root all over the world, and so many people would be watching everywhere. And then even American players would have lots of places to go, and it would just establish the whole global sport. What do you think, Christen?
Press: I think the problem is you kind of need a bit of infrastructure to effect change, right? And so, England was a great example. Because the English league is doing really well, they have the opportunity to quickly move into large stadiums to capitalize on the success that the English national team had in the Euros. And so, when you asked the question, I thought exactly the same as Tobin. We are in the position to make the most out of a win, because of the investment in the infrastructures that we have. Obviously, as Americans, we also tend to think that our news is global news. But I think the history of the team has been to fight for change. And that’s just been so ingrained in the culture of the U.S. Women’s National Team. And I do think that that is contagious, and it has been contagious and other countries are inspired by the fight that we’ve been having and winning. And at some point, we want that. The change that we’ve seen in our country, we want it to really quickly flood into all the countries. But I do think that, realistically, we’re in the best position to continue to have the biggest impact. And that’s just because of how many people cover it, how many people are watching in our country, where our league is, what stadiums we have to sell tickets and merchandise in—all of those things. Because, ultimately, what drives the business is money, right? And that’s what’s allowed the U.S. to have the change and the impact that we’ve had — is the infrastructure and the business of it pushing everything forward.
Heath: Yeah. And I would just add that I think the worst thing that could happen, actually, would be if the U.S. Women’s National Team lost and, like, an England won. Just in terms of that infrastructure. Because they have the infrastructure to scale success, to Christen’s point.
So, having the infrastructure to scale for success, in England, means an English victory would set women’s soccer back? What? These are USWNT partisans, but their views strike me as extraordinarily insular. Press and Heath agree with Markovits: These are two very different systems on either side of the Atlantic. Yet it’s imperative, so far as Heath and Press are concerned, that the U.S. system prevail, in order to carry the game forward. I don’t think I agree with any of that — but it does explain why these former players are so very vociferous in their criticism of the current USWNT. The 2023 edition isn’t just playing poorly. It isn’t just squandering the legacies of 2015 and 2019. It is endangering the future of women’s soccer, to hear Press and Heath tell it.
Not all the feedback from former national team players has been quite so… political. Lloyd isn’t going there; in fact, she has proved notably ambivalent about Megan Rapinoe’s multiple gestures, from national anthem-kneeling to the crusade for equity. It’s a bit harder to see these larger, evangelical goals for the women’s game in Lloyd’s comments. Yet, in light of the context provided by Lloyd, Chastain, Press and Heath, Horan’s clap-back make a lot more sense: Nothing matters but what is said and what we do inside the team.
Not the 1999 team. Not the 2019 team. The 2023 team.
Unwittingly, such widespread alumnae carping may have done this USWNT a huge favor. All these voices have created within Horan’s side a world-class “Everyone’s against us!” mentality. Listen to what Heath said, to Press and Rosin, on the subject of larger goals and responsibilities: “I love what you just said about fighting for something more. I think as a group and as a collective, you rally around something. I don’t know what that something is, but I’m pretty sure we’ll see it if this  team goes all the way to the final; we’ll know what that something is.”
I’m not sure what that something was, back when this tournament started. As the knockout stage begins, however, I think it’s safe to assert that for Horan and her teammates, this tournament is now about throwing such talk back in the faces of all these USWNT Old Girls, whose World Cup races are run but who can’t seem to shut up about “kids today.”