'It's great when there's a target on your back': USA untroubled with villain role

Caitlin Murray in Paris
<span>Photograph: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Getty Images

They are the teams that neutrals love to root against: the New England Patriots, the Golden State Warriors, Manchester United and … the US women’s national team?

“I was actually just talking about this 20 minutes ago at breakfast,” striker Carli Lloyd told the Guardian Friday morning. “I’m like, you know, everybody just hates the Patriots – and I’m an Eagles fan all my life – but you’ve got to respect what the Patriots have done. You’ve got to respect what the Golden State Warriors have done.”

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Related: It would have been a bigger disrespect if USA had not celebrated all 13 goals | Eni Aluko

The parallels between the USWNT and the other sports dynasties that neutrals love to hate are obvious. No other team has won more World Cups and Olympic gold medals than the US, who have been ranked No 1 in the world since lifting the Women’s World Cup trophy in 2015. And after thumping Thailand 13-0 on Tuesday without showing mercy – neither in the volume of goals nor in the jubilant celebrations – the Americans only offered more fuel for the unaffiliated to root against.

That doesn’t worry USWNT players, though. It’s what happens when you’re a frontrunner, just as is the case for Patriots and the others.

“We always have a target on our backs, but why wouldn’t you want that?” Lloyd said. “The No 1 team in the world, we won the last World Cup and we’re trying win this World Cup again. It’s great when there’s a target on your back, when people are talking about you – you’re obviously doing something right.”

The USA’s record-setting demolition of Thailand offered fodder for a match-up that on paper figured to be a run-of-the-mill US win. Debates broke out on social media and in comments sections all over the internet as to whether the Americans should’ve kept celebrating after, say, the sixth goal they scored in the rout.

But the players probably haven’t seen much of the reaction, if any of it, other than the questions they’ve faced from the press corps following the match, of course.

During events like the World Cup, the players live inside what they refer to as their “bubble”. They stay off social media, don’t read the news, and interactions with the press come in tightly controlled situations. The players focus on soccer, they focus on their relationships with each other, and they let everything else fade into the background.

So when asked about Hope Solo’s controversial comments last week calling Jill Ellis a poor leader, the players told the reporter they hadn’t seen what she said and couldn’t comment. Again, when asked about the hand-wringing about the goal celebrations against Thailand, a similar answer followed.

“I don’t think we as a team are super involved in watching or reading a lot of media about ourselves, to be honest,” midfielder Samantha Mewis said when asked about the criticism of the team’s celebrations. “We had heard there were some things going on, but I think we’re just trying to focus on the next game against Chile.”

Younger players like attackers Mallory Pugh and Rose Lavelle, who are competing in their first World Cup, have opted to remove social media from their devices altogether.

“I’ve actually been deleting social media every camp since last year because I knew it was something that, if I didn’t start to wean off it, it could negatively affect me in this tournament,” Lavelle said. “No offense to you guys, you’re all great. I’m really happy I did that because I feel like I can stay more focused and be more present with the team.”

For veterans like Lloyd, it’s a bit less of a bunker mentality.

“I’m a lot older. I don’t really care what people think,” Lloyd said. “A lot of these people think that they’re experts and they’re not – no disrespect.”

She does have her agent and publicist post on her behalf during the World Cup, but she says she’s the one who noticed the tweet from Thailand’s goalkeeper, Sukanya Chor Charoenying, thanking Lloyd for kind words after the match.

“I’m happy I saw that,” Lloyd said. “If I was blacked out and not on Twitter, it would’ve gone unnoticed.”

The so-called “bubble” may offer an easy out for the players throughout the World Cup: anytime they are asked about a controversy, they can claim ignorance on the topic. But it’s clearly something that works for them. Back in 2015, the USWNT was hit with plenty of flak for a lackluster start to the World Cup, and even former team legend Michelle Akers had publicly criticized Ellis.

But Ellis and the players insisted they weren’t paying attention. The term “bubble” was used over and over again. Ultimately, the US lifted the trophy.

So what is it about the bubble that works? It’s not so much about us on the outside: it’s about the players connecting with each other.

“The best way to come together as a group is to create that bubble and eliminate all the outside noise,” goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher said last week. “We have all those expectations for ourselves. We don’t need any outside things. We have high standards. We want to win.

“The more that we can bond and come together as a group, you’ll be able to see that on the field. I think all that translates into performances. You can see the teams that are cohesive and you can see the teams that aren’t, and we want to be one of those cohesive teams.”

The most charitable view of the USWNT’s exuberant goal celebrations against an overmatched Thai team is along those things: that the players wanted to celebrate together and enjoy the moment with one another rather than throw their dominance in the faces of the Thai team.

Not everyone will see it that way, of course. Whether it’s the USWNT, the Patriots or the others, some fans will be irked by whatever the Americans do. That’s fine with the USWNT: they’re used to it.

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