The USWNT is extraordinary — don’t pretend otherwise

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Neither the US Women’s National soccer team’s past glory in Megan Rapinoe, nor its future in young phenom Sophia Smith, could defeat Sweden in the present. Both players skipped penalty kicks high over the goal after a 0-0 tie in regulation, clear misses of the target altogether, in a 1-0 loss that was a jarring start to Sunday morning after the 5 a.m. whistle for the Women’s World Cup Round of 16 match. 

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Hate PKs or love them, the basic requirement is actually putting the ball in the goal. And it was a skill two of the best couldn’t manage on the biggest stage. Rapinoe and Smith were the last two of the US’s five players chosen to take the final shots of the game. Sweden had already missed, so victory was on their boots. Instead, the US lost PKs 5-4 after seven rounds. 

“It’s a sick joke to miss a fucking penalty,” Rapinoe said as reported in the Washington Post, as she hit the sweet spot between both sports meanings of the word GOAT and goat. She’s the greatest, and you could also point to her miss as the momentum shift before the loss. 

The backlash against this team has been completely disproportionate. I’ve been really trying to be less aware of social media these days, but the response to something former soccer player Taylor Twellman said brought out USWNT haters in droves who threw around the word “arrogant” like they’d just learned how to spell it. 

Rapinoe has won two World Cups and the 2019 Ballon d’Or. She’s LITERALLY entitled. Some people can’t stand seeing an unapologetic woman who knows she’s great at sports get rich and be personally happy.

 But even the best players have bad days, Rapinoe did not play well during regulation either. As much as she’s meant to this team over the years, as much as she has done for the game and as important as her advocacy has been for athletes, she didn’t help her team on Sunday.

There was plenty of blame to go around but, at 38, that’s a tough note for Rapinoe to go out on, if she does end up retiring from international play after this tournament. And she’s not the only one on the team who will likely go out on this low note. 

“I think for me it’s just emotional because it’s probably my last game ever being able to have the honor to wear this crest,” Julie Ertz said in a FOX post game interview. 

Rapinoe and Ertz – and Brazil’s Marta whose team didn’t advance this time — can be assured they leave a legacy, even in the loss. Just look at the numbers.

The games drew huge ratings despite the time difference between the US and the tournament hosts, Australia and New Zealand. A group stage 1-1 tie with the Netherlands drew 6.4 million viewers, making it the most watched group stage match in English. And attendance for the matches has broken records as well. On Sunday, more than 27,000 watched Sweden win, and officially made it the most attended tournament ever.

In a tournament defined by delightful spoilers like Morocco and Jamaica, the USWNT didn’t play well enough, didn’t score enough, to advance. 

Let’s face it, we’ve been spoiled in the US. The last two World Cups were won by the USWNT. And when you look at the greater context, the record of the USWNT is even more extraordinary. FIFA has only hosted a World Cup for women since 1991, there have been eight, and the US has won four. 

The National Women’s Soccer League is looking to expand the number of teams because of the success the US teams have brought to this country. There was a time when it felt like professional women’s soccer here was a precarious thing, but those days are in the past. 

It’s no longer the case that if the US loses a World Cup game, they’d sink to the background except for the occasional qualifier and friendly. Alex Morgan plays for the Waves, Smith plays for the Thorns in Portland, and Kelly O’Hara is on Gotham FC. NWSL play resumes Aug. 18. 

Rapinoe herself plays for the OL Reign in Seattle. 

Soccer is in a very different place now. You could tell by watching the ads for this World Cup, which were tailored for the game and featured star players.

In the meantime, fans of this team can take a minute to understand the gut punch it is to lose at this level, something this team has spent decades delivering on the international stage.

And then, tune back in to see who wins it this time.

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