What’s your favorite goal from America’s 13-0 victory over Thailand in their first game of the World Cup? It’s hard to pick, because they all feel like my children. I think it’s probably Alex Morgan’s record-tying fifth goal, when she ripped a shot from the top of the 18-yard box that curled away from the hapless Thai keeper. But it might be when Megan Rapinoe ran onto a perfect through ball and blasted the ball into the back of the net to put Team USA up 9-0. Yet it also might be Rose Lavelle’s 20-yarder through a pack of four defenders. Gosh, it’s really hard being a parent of 13.
I loved every minute of the USWNT’s 13-0 win on Tuesday, from when Morgan got the scoring started to the run of four goals in six minutes toward the start of the second half, to the time Morgan counted her goals on her hands like Gregg Popovich at the Spurs’ fifth championship parade, to the time they decided to go for a baker’s dozen up 12-0 in stoppage time. Unfortunately, not everybody liked the big win. There have been complaints from around the globe that the Americans were being unsporting by scoring so much, and more pointedly, by celebrating the goals in such a lopsided win. (The Canadians seem particularly mad. SPOKEN LIKE A COUNTRY THAT LOST TO THE U.S. IN WOMEN’S HOCKEY AND MEN’S CURLING AT THE LAST OLYMPICS. Maybe they’ll understand after the Raptors win.)
And, oh yeah, they did celebrate those goals.
There have been several explanations for why 13 goals were actually acceptable within the rules of sportsmanship. Some have argued it’s in the U.S.’s best interest to have a high goal differential. Others have said it would be ruder for the team to stop scoring, that America owed it to the integrity of the event and to the self-respect of their opponents to continue playing their best.
Please. Don’t insult this utter ass-whupping by claiming it was inspired by logic or morality. When three teams advance out of a four-team group, and you’re leading one of those four teams by 10, you don’t really need to worry about goal differential. You already found the team that’s not advancing. And while I haven’t interviewed any Thai players, I’m pretty sure they’d have been just fine watching their opponents aimlessly pass the ball around if it avoided the ignominy of their nation and friends and family knowing they lost 13-0.
Sometimes, when you’re the best damn team in the world, you just gotta go out and be the best damn team in the world. Nobody looks back at the ’92 Dream Team and says, “Man, I wish they’d chilled out against Angola.” No, the fact that some of the greatest basketball players of all time got on a court together and decided to open the Olympics by dunking their way to dominance with a 116-48 win over a nation that’s never produced an NBA player is something we actively celebrate.
I got Dream Team vibes watching our women on Tuesday. They didn’t score 13 goals because it was the smart thing to do or the right thing to do. They did it because they felt like it. They’re the defending champs, and they wanted to play their best to prove they’re the best.
Morgan and Lavelle and Mewis and Pugh and Rapinoe and Lloyd are not the first to put up a lopsided score in international play, and they won’t be the last. In fact, massive, comical, hideous blowouts are relatively common in the strange world of international sports. Our basketball team didn’t stop blowing people out after the Dream Team era, beating Nigeria 156-73 in 2012. At last month’s men’s world hockey championships, Italy lost by scores of 10-0 to Russia, 9-0 to Switzerland, 8-0 to Sweden and the Czech Republic, and 7-1 to Norway. And that’s not even the worst Italian hockey team ever—in 1948, the Italians sent a team to the Olympics that lost to Sweden 23-0, to Switzerland 16-0, to Canada 21-1, and to the U.S. 31-1. (What happened on that one goal, guys?)
Tournament qualification in European men’s soccer pits teeny-tiny principalities and territories like Liechtenstein and Gibraltar against the best teams in the world; in 2006 San Marino lost 13-0 to Germany in a European championship qualifying match, and the Sammarinese lost 9-0 to Russia during the most recent round of qualifying. At the ongoing men’s U-20 World Cup, Norway beat Honduras 12-0, with Erling Haland scoring a triple hat trick with nine goals; the Norwegians knew their only way out of the group stages was to advance on goal differential.
Until 2006, Australia was a member of the Oceania Football Confederation, meaning their method of qualifying for the World Cup involved playing against teams from tiny rocks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where soccer isn’t even the most popular sport. In 2001 the Socceroos beat football-crazy American Samoa 31-0 and rugby-mad Tonga 22-0 during the qualifying tournament. But switching sports, not all the Aussies’ blowouts can be blamed on weird qualifying situations; in the 2003 Rugby World Cup, the hosting Wallabies beat Namibia 142-0.
In a recent U-18 basketball game, Team USA took a 43-0 lead on Panama in the first quarter of a 118-26 win. I once covered the world championship of U.S. football (yes, it exists) and watched an American team primarily composed of former Division III players beat France 82-0. (82 because they missed two two-point conversion attempts.)
It’s easy to understand why blowouts happen so frequently in international competition. Some countries have millions of people; some have thousands. Some nations are rich, and have money to spare on sports; some are poor, and have bigger issues than financing athletics. Sometimes it’s just a matter of preference, when one country cares about a sport and another does not. The U.S. is great at many sports, but we also got our asses kicked 64-0 by South Africa at the last Rugby World Cup.
And yes, these mismatches tend to be even greater in women’s competition. There is still a stigma against women playing sports in basically every country on earth, including the U.S., and the acceptance of women’s sports varies from country to country. This heightens the already massive gaps. Sometimes, it’s not just a big, rich country playing little, poorer countries—it’s a big country where women’s sports are relatively accepted playing against smaller countries where female participation is not encouraged or funded particularly well. A 2008 Olympic qualifying game in women’s hockey between Slovakia and Bulgaria ended 82-0, as the professional Slovakians effortlessly breezed past Bulgarians who could barely skate. A recent U-17 basketball tournament saw Australia’s women’s team beat the Marshall Islands 166-3. In soccer, while Team USA set the World Cup record with their 13-0 win, it wasn’t by much; the 2007 World Cup saw eventual champs Germany beat Argentina 11-0. The Germans have won European qualifying matches by as many as 17. This New York Times article about soccer in Thailand points out that the Thai women recently beat Indonesia 13-0, the same scoreline of their loss to America.
But not all blowouts are alike. Many are truly depressing affairs, played in near-empty stadia where elite athletes—who would clearly rather be playing equal competition—run over humiliated amateurs helpless to stop them. Look at the Australia men’s soccer team in that 31-0 match, or the Slovakian women in that 82-0 hockey win. The winning teams aren’t even particularly happy to score. They’re just going through the motions, hitting the back of the net because it feels more normal than intentionally not scoring when presented with an empty goal. They’re bored.
What sets Tuesday apart is that at no point in Team USA’s 13-0 win was anybody bored, least of whom the players, who were going nuts over every goal. That stadium wasn’t empty. It was packed with screaming Americans. Every goal increased the joy. I know this because while I was extremely happy when the U.S. looked poised to take a 12-0 win, I was somehow even happier when that 13th goal found the back of the net. This wasn’t some weird qualifier between a world champ and people playing the sport for the first time. It was the damn World Cup. Thailand had to qualify to get there. And it was the first game by a title-defending U.S. team that wanted to announce they’re the best team in the world again this time around.
And honestly, for the USWNT, I get the motivation to announce that. Because their spotlight is limited, and our tolerance for failure is lower. Soccer might not be the U.S.’s most popular sport, but the men’s team can miss the World Cup or lose 3-0 to Venezuela, and still get broadcast on major channels and play before sellout crowds during their next World Cup qualification cycle. The women get mainstream coverage for only massive events, like the World Cup and Olympics, and it seems like they’re promised that coverage only if they’re literally the best team on the planet. They’ve still got a championship to win, but Tuesday, they made damn sure that we know that’s exactly what they are.
I’m going to cherish 13-0, because it felt like the type of athletic performance you get to see only a few times in a lifetime. We got to watch an all-star squad of the greatest players in their sport going 100 percent for an entire game against a team that couldn’t stop them. They didn’t need to do that. They could’ve played conservatively after a 3-0 first half; they could’ve decided to lay off after hitting seven. Instead, they decided to test the limits of the game and themselves by constantly pushing. They kept scoring after all the records had been set; they kept scoring and celebrating even into stoppage time. Maybe you think it was unsportsmanlike; I think it was breathtaking.