The US women’s national team has once again risked the ire of the American public after more than half of the team refused to sing the national anthem before their World Cup group game against the Netherlands in Wellington.
Later, in a game anticipated for months – a repeat of the 2019 World Cup final – the Dutch held the star-studded world champions to a 1-1 draw.
The silent “protest” was labelled “embarrassing” and “disrespectful” by one prominent pundit in the States and also drew strong criticism on social media, with some accusing members of the US women’s squad of failing to be patriotic enough on the global stage.
However, they have received support from tennis legend Martina Navratilova, who told critics to “get a grip”.
A large number of the US players, who have a long history of standing up for themselves and other social justice movements, were once again defiant in their pre-match line-up.
Six players, including Andi Sullivan, Sophia Smith, Naomi Girma, Emily Fox, Trinity Rodman and Crystal Dunn, had chosen not to sing the anthem in the opening game against Vietnam and refused to do so again against the Dutch.
Defender Girma had brushed off the criticism in the build-up to the game and once again stayed silent, with her hands behind her back, during the rendition of the anthem in Wellington, New Zealand.
“I think when we’re out there we’re preparing for the game, and that isn’t the focus,” Girma said, earlier this week. “So ultimately, every player has the choice.”
The most stinging rebuke came from prominent journalist and media personality, Megyn Kelly, who said before the reigning champions’ second game of this World Cup, that they were damaging the country with their behaviour.
“I really do believe their version of what a feminist is, what it means to be an empowered woman, at least as an American woman, means you need to hate your country,” the outspoken podcaster told her audience on SiriusXM’s the Megyn Kelly Show.
“It means to go out on the national stage and embarrass yourself and your country by not singing the national anthem. For several of them, not even holding their hands over their hearts when the national anthem played, that was a bridge too far.
“They couldn’t be bothered to actually place their hand on their heart as the national anthem played, as they stood out there representing you and me and the country and our military and people who have given their lives for the country that they represent.
“It was too much of an effort [for them] to place their hand over their heart, or God forbid, sing.”
Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley has also been critical, posting on social media: “The US women’s soccer team is living the American Dream. They were born in the freest, fairest country in the world that has rewarded their hard work. They should remember that blessing and the men and women (like my husband) proudly defending it next time the national anthem plays.”
The players have received support from a somewhat unlikely source, however. Navratilova, who has been critical of USWNT star Megan Rapinoe’s views on transgender athletes, responded to Haley’s comments, saying: “They are defending it by playing their hardest and winning most of the time. Not by singing. Get a grip and start talking about solutions rather than searching for problems where there aren’t any.”
As for their World Cup campaign, Morgan praised her team’s “comeback mentality” following the draw against the Netherlands, but vowed that the defending world champions will “work even harder” to top the group.
In a thrilling Group E encounter, the Americans rallied in the second half to rescue a point against the Dutch after falling behind to a 17th-minute Jill Roord strike.
“Coming back out of the locker room, we had the kind of fightback this USA team is about,” said Morgan, who saw captain Lindsey Horan equalise in the 62nd-minute. “We were unlucky not to get a second goal. We had so many opportunities, so many corners and crosses, and chances cleared off the line. Just attacking wave after wave, that was important.”
She said that the fightback was “an important piece to this journey” for both veterans and newcomers in the team and said that it was “a little bit of that mentality that we needed into this tournament”.
Roord’s strike had rattled the US. The 2017 European champions seized control and demonstrated that they had the quality and composure to go toe-to-toe with the tournament favourites. After the break, substitute Rose Lavelle’s impetus and assist steered the US to a draw. The Americans retain top spot in the group on goal difference from the Dutch, who face debutants Vietnam in their final group match.
“It is a little unfortunate that first place in this group is now up for grabs,” said Morgan. “Goal differential is a huge factor when you think of first place in the group. We will obviously think of how we are going to attack and defend against Portugal. That’s definitely on the back of our minds, not closing out this game. We have to work even harder to get the goals and make sure we secure that first place.”
Morgan and her team have come under criticism for a slow start to the tournament after a 3-0 victory against Vietnam in their opening game, but US manager Vlatko Andonovski believes that, going into their final Group E match on Tuesday against the Portuguese, the best is yet to come for the Americans.
“The baseline is what you saw in the second half,” reflected Andonovski. “It was a very good match for our team, especially for a group of young players. They grew throughout the game individually, but also as a team, we grew throughout the game as well. we’re just going to get better from game to game, and we’re going to be a lot more efficient as well.”
The United States have been warned: while they have star power, experience and talent in abundance, a fifth world title will not come easy.