After winning the most competitive tournament yet, with the spotlight at its brightest (and pinkest), the 19ers have a claim to being the best women's soccer team ever
Which Megan Rapinoe pose did you prefer? The one with her arms outstretched like a marble statue in the Louvre—the Purple-Haired Lesbian Goddess—that we saw after her goals against France in the World Cup quarterfinals and against the Netherlands in Sunday's 2--0 final? Or the one she posted on Instagram, her arms overflowing with a preposterous trio of trophies—for the tournament title, the Golden Boot (as the top scorer) and the Golden Ball (MVP)?
Then again, maybe pose isn't the right word. That would imply something artificial, which hardly applies to Rapinoe's monthlong tour de force during the U.S.'s second straight title run (and fourth in eight World Cups). Rarely have we seen an athlete at the highest level talk the talk—and did Pinoe ever, demanding equal pay for women players, increased investment in the women's game and greater respect for the LGBTQ and other minority communities—and then walk the walk, even with Donald Trump calling her out.
"Megan should WIN first before she TALKS! Finish the job!" the President tweeted on June 26 after a months-old video surfaced of Rapinoe saying, "I'm not going to the f------ White House" if the U.S. team won it all and was invited. Two days later, after standing her ground in a press conference (but apologizing for swearing), Rapinoe scored both goals in that 2--1 victory over the host French. Three times in the knockout rounds she faced the ultimate pressure of taking a penalty kick for her country in the World Cup, and three times she converted, including the decisive goal in the 61st minute of the final in Lyon. By Sunday, even Trump backed off, tweeting, "America is proud of you all!"
We'll go there. Muhammad Ali is a singular figure in American history. But there are elements of a modern-day Ali in Rapinoe's commingling of sports and social activism, to say nothing of her ability to turn the media's attention—even when negative, in certain circles—to her advantage. Who else would say with glee that she was looking forward to a "total s--- show circus" in a World Cup quarterfinal?
"I'm made for this," the 34-year-old forward said after the final. "I love it.... To back up all those words with performances and back up all those performances with words, it's just incredible. I feel like this team is in the midst of changing the world around us as we live, and it's an incredible feeling."
This team is also in the midst of suing the U.S. Soccer Federation for gender discrimination—though both sides have agreed to try mediation first—and in the heady moments after Sunday's final whistle the American Outlaws supporters group engaged in a lusty chant of "Equal pay! Equal pay!" The chorus rang through the stadium as Rapinoe accepted her awards and then conversed with FIFA president Gianni Infantino, French president Emmanuel Macron and U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro.
Rapinoe knows her power—TV ratings for Fox's broadcast of the final were 20% better than those for the men's tournament one year ago; this is America's Team right now—and she isn't afraid to wield it. "Everyone's asking what's next and what we want to come from all this," she said after beating the Dutch. "And it's to stop having the conversation about equal pay and 'Are we worth it?' What are we going to do about it? Gianni, what are we going to do about it? Carlos, what are we going to do about it? ... It's time to sit down with everyone and really get to work."
So thoroughly did Rapinoe back up her talk on the field that one half-wondered if she was impervious to the cascading criticism she received from parts of a divided country, whether it was over her 2016 decision to take a knee during the national anthem in support of Colin Kaepernick's protesting police treatment of black Americans or over her continued protest—declining to sing along or put her hand over her heart—after U.S. Soccer passed a rule requiring players to stand.
But no, she's human.
"Megan actually is very sensitive; but in regards to her profession, she's very good at compartmentalizing, so she doesn't really get too rattled," Rapinoe's twin sister, Rachael, says about Megan's private processing of Trump's tweet. "She wasn't talking about it a lot, so I could tell she was trying to process it and not be too affected. In 2016 we had a different president. [Barack Obama backed Kaepernick's right to kneel but did not directly address Rapinoe's protest.] Now she's not even protected by her own president. That's almost surreal to me, that we have a president who's essentially going after my sister, but also kind of the team, too."
And what a team these 19ers were. One of the greatest of all time? Probably. The most meaningful in history? Perhaps, considering all the things these women have represented to different people. The greatest women's soccer team ever? Oh, yes, certainly. "I do think this is a team that across the board is the best we've seen," says no less an authority than two-time U.S. World Cup champion Julie Foudy. This was the first women's team to win back-to-back titles and reach three finals in a row. Until Sunday the USWNT had scored in the first 12 minutes of every preceding match in France. It won every game, outscored opponents 26--3, led for 442 of 630 minutes and never trailed.
A raft of stories during the tournament suggested that the rest of the world is catching up to the now-four-time champions, but that notion is a bit off. While European teams are certainly improving, the U.S. is getting better too—maybe even at a faster rate.
IT WOULD be easy to view this dominant World Cup run as an ass-kicking inevitability, a constant march onward and upward. Here we go again. The journey of the past four years, however, was anything but painless. In August 2016, at the Rio Olympics, the U.S. suffered a quarterfinal elimination to Sweden—the team's earliest exit from a major tournament—in which Rapinoe, on the wrong side of 30 and hampered by a right-knee injury, looked as if she might be finished with international soccer. Then in '17, coach Jill Ellis, vowing to unlock more creativity in the attack, launched a period of experimentation, with new formations and players. Real change, though, can be an ugly and uncomfortable process long before it becomes glorious.
The grimmest moment came on March 8, 2017, at the SheBelieves Cup, in Washington, D.C., where a thoroughly disjointed U.S. team (having already lost 1--0 to England) went down 2--0 after nine minutes to France. Rapinoe, in the wake of her taking a knee, wasn't called up for the game. Ellis, meanwhile, tried a 3-5-2 formation and left a slew of regulars on the bench: Alex Morgan, Julie Ertz, Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Kelley O'Hara. The resulting 3--0 defeat left U.S. fans and media howling.
"I remember thinking after that loss that we had a long way to go," O'Hara, the right back in France, said last week. "But that's kind of a good thing, you know? You don't ever want to feel like it's easy all the time and there's no obstacles or need for growth. After 2016 [Ellis said,] 'I'm about to put this team through an evolution that I feel is necessary to win us a World Cup in 2019.' And as hard as that was—it was hectic and stressful and full of uncertainty for a lot of people—it was necessary. I respect her a lot for doing that and sticking to her guns, and I respect the individuals on this team and how we handled ourselves through that time."
Adds Morgan, "You have to give credit to Jill for looking at new things throughout the course of the last three years in order to see what the right direction was for us.... It was a little bit of experimenting, and she did it in a way that a lot of people criticized. But when you get to where we are now, you can't help but applaud that."
Not that everyone was applauding at the time. After a 1--0 home loss to Australia in July 2017, at the Tournament of Nations, several U.S. veterans went to then federation president Sunil Gulati and expressed deep concerns with Ellis's communication off the field and the team's declining performance on it. If those concerns weren't addressed, they said, they wanted a new coach. At a meeting several months later Gulati responded to the team and said Ellis, who was in the room, wasn't going anywhere before World Cup 2019—a decision backed by Cordeiro, who succeeded Gulati in February '18.
Winning has a way of easing tensions, however, and in 2018 the U.S. went undefeated as Ellis and her offensive guru, assistant Tony Gustavsson, landed on a 4-3-3 formation that was much more freewheeling than that of the '15 World Cup champions. The linchpins: an explosive starting front line (Rapinoe, Morgan and Tobin Heath) with remarkable depth (Carli Lloyd, Christen Press and Mallory Pugh as subs!) and Ertz playing an indispensable defensive-midfield role. Concerns over the defense would continue into the World Cup, especially when it came to Hope Solo's untested goalkeeping replacement, Alyssa Naeher, but Naeher proved herself when it mattered most in France, making two giant saves (one of them on a late penalty) in a 2--1 semifinal win over England.
Ellis's experimentation also unearthed some gems. One of the fresh starters in the D.C. debacle was a 21-year-old midfielder from Cincinnati named Rose Lavelle, who was making her second appearance with the national team. "I got subbed out at halftime because I was pretty awful," Lavelle says. "I remember thinking, Wow, that's like the top of the top. I need to get better, and that's where I need to be in the next couple of years if I want to compete for a spot on this team."
Now 24, Lavelle is the World Cup's breakout star, the U.S.'s creative maestro in both the semifinal and the final. Watching her in full flight on the ball is exhilarating, one of the elemental thrills of the sport, not just for what it reveals in the present but also for what it portends of her limitless future. In the 69th minute of Sunday's final she found herself with a half-acre of space in the middle of the field and went to work, bamboozling Dutch defender Stefanie van der Gragt to create room for her left-footed knockout punch.
In becoming the first coach to win back-to-back World Cups in the women's game, Ellis had to use nearly all the capital she'd won in 2015 to remake her U.S. team. "Coming out of the Olympics, it was a moment to kind of reflect and look at making sure we played competitive games and increased our roster in terms of finding players like Rose Lavelle," she said last week. "Sometimes it's part of the growing pains when you want to shift something. But full credit to the players. You build the system around them. They're the gasoline that makes it work. That process was to get to this point with players in their right spots."
Along the way Ellis has been especially supportive of her most Promethean talents, even through long periods of injuries, whether that's been Lavelle (hamstring), Heath (back) or Rapinoe (knee). "Her most creative players, she has had a commitment to them—'I'm going to have patience. You're going to get back,'" says Foudy. "As a player that's everything, especially at that level where it's so cutthroat, where it's hard to feel confidence when you're injured and away from the group. And Jill was willing to tinker. Sometimes you would hammer her for it, but you have to live through those moments to learn and grow. I think she's been courageous in that way."
THE 19ERS, like the 91ers and the 99ers and the 15ers, will be known for far more than what they accomplished on a soccer field. "The fabric of this team," Foudy says, "has always been, It's more than soccer." This World Cup has produced record numbers of viewers for women's soccer around the world, including in Brazil (where 35 million people watched their round of 16 game against France), China, England, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. The USWNT now has had an impact there, too.
"In '99 we envisioned our win as a catalyst that would spark a global movement, but I think it was a domestic one," says Foudy. "I see the 19ers as responsible for a global movement. They set an example for women on standards of expectations. There are so many countries finally standing up and saying, 'This [treatment of women's soccer] isn't right.' Players have the courage to stand up and say, 'This needs to be better, not just for us but for the next generation.' A lot of that comes from them seeing this U.S. group [fight for change]."
Meanwhile, the pressure on FIFA—from Rapinoe and from others—to invest more of its $2.7 billion in reserves in the women's game appears to be having an effect. Infantino announced last week a proposal to expand the Women's World Cup from 24 to 32 teams; double the prize money, to $60 million; double FIFA's grassroots global investment in the women's game, to $1 billion; and start a FIFA World League for women's national teams and a FIFA Women's Club World Cup. Rapinoe said that while this was all promising, Infantino's proposal would mean that the gap in prize money between the women and the men (whose haul is slated to increase even more significantly) is actually widening, not closing.
After calling out the FIFA president last Saturday, Rapinoe and Infantino had a brief conversation at the awards podium on Sunday. "There was a wry smile," Rapinoe said afterward, with a grin of her own. "He did say he'd like to have a conversation, and I said I'd love to."
That's power. And after a World Cup that will put her performance in the canon of American athletic achievements, that's Pinoe.
It would be easy to view this World Cup run as an ass-kicking inevitability. Here we go again. The journey of the past four years, however, was anything but painless.
"There was a wry smile," Rapinoe said, with a grin of her own, on her exchange with the new FIFA head. "He did say he'd like to have a conversation, and I said I'd love to."