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Savor the USWNT, the Champions Who Never Stopped

En route to a World Cup repeat, the Americans won with style and they won with grit, never trailing once in the tournament. What’s left to criticize now?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Should we start with Tobin Heath? There’s a lot to get into here, obviously, but the image I’m carrying with me, a few minutes after the final whistle, is the image of Heath squiggling through the Dutch defense late in the second half. The U.S. women’s national team—sorry: the 2019 World Cup champion U.S. women’s national team—was already up by what would turn out to be the winning score, 2-0, and could have lapsed into time-wasting mode. That’s what Jill Ellis’s side, for all its celebrated potency in the attack, had done with leads in previous wins against England and France. In this game, though, that never quite happened. Maybe the two-goal lead gave the Americans the freedom to exploit gaps in the Netherlands back line; maybe Heath was just desperate to score in her second consecutive World Cup final. Either way, there she was, slipping through space, dribbling past multiple defenders, and putting on a high-speed technical clinic in the dying minutes of the match.

It was an example of the kind of behavior—not knowing when to stop—that the USWNT has been criticized for at times during this tournament. It was also really fun to watch, and a reminder of what’s made the USWNT so awesomely formidable during the past month as they’ve mowed down the toughest opposition ever faced by a Women’s World Cup winner en route to the championship. You don’t stop them. They stop when they decide to stop, and not before.

Or should we talk about Sari van Veenendaal? The Dutch goalkeeper was everywhere in the first half, repelling shots in seemingly every way possible: with her hands, her feet, and her body, sometimes all at once. The strength of the Netherlands was always supposed to be its attack, which is spearheaded by the great forward Vivianne Miedema, a player capable of doing with the ball what Christopher Nolan movies do with timelines. But while the Oranje only rarely bothered the American defense, they succeeded in frustrating the U.S. attack for all of the first 45 minutes. It had been months since another team held the USWNT scoreless for a whole half, and the Netherlands managed to do it only because Veenendaal was playing like several goalkeepers at once. And then the penalty happened, and Megan Rapinoe was standing over the spot, and 60 grueling minutes of Veenendaal heroics disappeared in half a second.

It was another reminder of what made this American team so tough. Because they never put themselves in a vulnerable position—literally never trailed in the tournament, despite playing against the reigning European champions and four teams ranked in the Soccer Power Index’s top 11 in their last five matches—you could play almost perfectly against them and still know that one lapse at any moment could cost you the match.

Maybe we should we talk about VAR? Wow, VAR. Incredible work from the whole video-replay team to award the penalty Rapinoe converted. VAR—what a great system, which I have definitely never criticized or claimed to hate “with every cell in my body” in my life.

This was a World Cup that somehow featured both the highest level of overall talent and the most dominant performance by a single team in at least 20 years, going back to the USWNT’s iconic 1999 championship. Those two things shouldn’t go together, right? The tougher the teams in the draw, the more close games those teams should produce. But consider the (minute, but compared with U.S. women’s 2019 dominance, significant) stumbles of the last two decades of World Cup winners:

  • 1999: The U.S. needs penalties to beat China in the final.
  • 2003: Germany needs extra time to beat Sweden in the final.
  • 2007: Germany draws with England in the group stage after beating Argentina 11-0 in its previous match.
  • 2011: Japan loses a group-stage match and needs penalties to beat the U.S. in the final.
  • 2015: The U.S. draws with Sweden in the group stage.

Compare that with the 2019 USWNT, which lost to no one, drew with no one, trailed against no one, needed extra time against no one, and went to penalties against no one—and this despite the fact that most observers agreed the level of play this year was higher than ever. If anything, calling this year’s USWNT the greatest American soccer team of all time feels like selling them short. They faced unprecedentedly strong opposition, and they ground that opposition into ash.

Along the way, of course, they were the targets of petty criticism from a whole host of detractors, ranging from their opponents to the international media to people looking for reasons to hate women’s soccer to the president of the United States. They were attacked for scoring too many goals and also for being overconfident. They were attacked for celebrating too jubilantly and also for being too angrily political. They were attacked, incomprehensibly, for sending someone to look at a hotel. They were attacked—possibly by their own parents—for having once, several months ago, used the word “fucking.” They were attacked for being un-American and also for performing perhaps the single most patriotic action available to any citizen of this country: trolling England in a manner involving tea.

The endless drip of petty gripes from the various anti-USWNT factions necessitated defenses from pro-USWNT voices who might otherwise have been free to spend their time talking about how cool it is to watch great athletes do fun stuff. In social media-adjacent spaces, i.e. our very brains, a familiar event-backlash-counter-backlash cycle took hold, the daily grind of which served as a wearying extension of the double standard the USWNT always faces: do the thing, then justify having done it. (“I have to do everything I have to do on the field. Then I have to do everything else to prove to you that that’s enough,” said Rapinoe, the subject of President Donald Trump’s sniping during the tournament, last month.) The arguments might have been individually important, but the distracting churn of them made it harder to appreciate just how enjoyable this U.S. team was to watch—how fast, how powerful, how brilliant on the attack. The metanarrative of the criticism became its own story to the extent that major media outlets were analyzing it in the days before the final.

In the end, it made no difference. Rapinoe got to the spot and converted. Eight minutes later, Rose Lavelle finished a nifty little solo run by knocking the ball past Veenendaal with her left foot from 18 feet out. 2-0. Title. This year’s USWNT simply proved that it could do everything. It could speak its mind, fight for equal pay, win every game, and answer its critics. For some groups, taking on all of that at once might have led to loss of focus. For this group, it seemed to have the opposite effect. Being themselves off the field made the players stronger on it. Winning gave them armor against their detractors. They stop when they decide to stop, remember? And this year—thank goodness—they decided not to.