It’s taking some getting used to for die-hard soccer fans in the United States: for the first time since the Women’s World Cup was founded, the U.S. national team has not reached the quarterfinals. Elimination to Sweden in the Eight Finals provided a week of reflection, leading to the harsh realization that the rest of the world has certainly caught up to American soccer players.
The matter came down to the narrow millimeter between the ball and the goal line in the decisive penalty kick from Swedish Lena Hurtig, which was saved by goalkeeper Alyssa Naher, but it was not enough. The Americans played their best match in the tournament against Sweden, but the team previously disappointed against the Netherlands (1-1) and especially Portugal (0-0).
About the author
Koen van der Velden describes De Volkskrant About sports in the United States. Lives in New York.
“We didn’t lose by a millimeter, we lost by a mile,” concluded former international player Tobin Heath on her podcast. The game stalled, especially offensively: the American women didn’t score a goal in their final 248 minutes of the World Cup.
What now? The question was asked immediately after the final whistle. The American women’s soccer monopoly, who were aiming for their fifth World Cup title and third straight, has shown cracks in the past, including a bronze medal at the Tokyo Games. In Melbourne, it collapsed into pieces.
Some believe this is down to coach Vlatko Andonovski, who is likely to leave. Others looked further and saw structural problems in American football education: the high cost of the sport, which excludes talent from less fortunate families, and the lack of a clear hierarchy among professional clubs.
The analysis said that the focus in educating American children is too much on winning, and not enough on creativity and development. Now that other countries are taking women’s football seriously, just playing sports and a good dose of commitment is no longer enough.
On the other hand, there was optimism. For a team in transition, America’s performance wasn’t bad. Veterans such as Alex Morgan (34 years old) and retired Megan Rapinoe (38 years old) were in their final days in Australia, but on the other hand there were bright spots such as wingers Sophia Smith (23 years old) and Trinity Rodman (21 years old) and defender Naomi. Girma (23). The lead in the competition may be gone, but the talent pool in the United States is large enough to remain a title contender.
The end of the American’s bid for the world title made the defeated Crystal Dunne proud. “We have always fought for the global development of this sport,” the left-back said. “This is what you see now.”
In good hands
In Melbourne, the old generation expressed confidence in the new generation. “The game is evolving, but I’m still optimistic about the future of this team,” Morgan said. According to Rapinoe, who played her last international match against Sweden and will retire from soccer after the American season, the national team is in safe hands. “And it will always be that way.”
The fact that Rapinoe, of all people, kicked the penalty kick against Sweden prompted schadenfreude among a portion of the American crowd. The outspoken and confident Rapinoe is an irritant to many of her right-wing compatriots as the central figure of a team that has fought outside the lines against pay inequality, racism and homophobia and transphobia.
Conservative commentators and politicians described the ideals of Rapinoe and her teammates as “woke”, and some were pleased with the defeat to Sweden. Former President Donald Trump, among others, with whom Rapinoe has publicly sparred in the past, paused their nationalism for a while to applaud the American team’s elimination.
In the blind spot
While soccer players were being beaten by commentators on the right-wing news channel Fox News, younger brother Fox Sports, the World Cup broadcaster, got into trouble for being eliminated. Interest in the US national team had already declined due to the mediocre group stage (the match against Sweden attracted 2.5 million viewers, compared to an average of 4.3 million for the previous three matches), but without the defending champions, the World Cup would disappear from our world. Maybe the American public is in a blind spot.
This time, matches between other countries attracted 37 percent fewer viewers than four years ago, when the tournament was held in France. The time difference doesn’t help: on the US East Coast, fans had to set their alarms for 5am to watch the Round 16 match against Sweden, while that was the case for other sides before that.
To capture the audience’s attention, Fox once again showed highlights of the previous World Cup finals in the quarter-finals, when the whole world was at the feet of Morgan, Rapinoe and their teammates. There was talk of the end of an era. It seems unlikely that the new project will achieve the same degree of success.
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