LYON, France — From politicians to pop stars, from surging television ratings to merchandise flying onto the backs of their growing bandwagon of supporters, the United States women’s national team has America’s attention.
That doesn’t happen easily in women’s soccer, essentially once every four years. Even in the U.S.
It’s what makes Tuesday’s World Cup semifinal against England (3 p.m. ET) more than just a game with enormous, if obvious, stakes. The winner advances to Sunday’s World Cup final against either Sweden or the Netherlands, likely as the significant favorite.
The American team says it is lasered in on the England game and continuing the opportunity to win a second consecutive, and fourth total, World Cup.
“Inside our bubble, we keep calm and stay focused,” said midfielder Samantha Mewis.
Yet this entire World Cup has played out with the backdrop of the team’s equal pay federal lawsuit against U.S. Soccer, the sport’s national governing body. The American players are using the high-profile platform that success here in France provides to push for a leveling of pay, funding and commitment.
The issues are complicated, a literal federal case. The two sides agreed to enter into mediation after the World Cup.
Whether you gleefully support the players or side with the market-forces argument of U.S. Soccer, you can recognize that the more the Americans win, the stronger their argument gets, at least in the court of public opinion.
The USWNT will have won two World Cups since 2015. The USMNT has won two World Cup games – total – since 2002.
No, that isn't a fair, apples-to-apples point. But that’s a heck of an apple to be able to parade around.
Win the World Cup, and the players return to the United States with plenty of chances to do so. At ticker tape parades, on national television appearances and directly to fawning politicians (in the White House, Capitol Hill or both). Sunday’s final would be expected to break the 2015 final television audience record of over 25 million viewers for a soccer game. Even losing a close, dramatic game would strengthen the players’ case, or at least not harm it.
For a group that is open about trying to help their present reality, but even more so the next incarnation of players, both domestically and globally, it’s an opportunity as golden as the trophy.
“I find that a lot of time when I stand up for this team or with equality within this sport, you’re not necessarily going to reap all the benefits,” forward Alex Morgan said. "But your hope is that the next generation will."
Yet if the U.S. loses to England, who knows?
The fight will continue, particularly in court.
Yet the momentum gets blunted. There is winning and there is everything else. The semifinals are just the semifinals.
This is a team that fully embraces the all-or-nothing stakes of their current reality. They aren’t here for moral victories or the third-place game. They won the opener 13-zip. If anything, that victory-or-bust ethos has led to claims, often ridiculous, of the team being “arrogant.”
“Obviously our goal coming in was to win,” goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher said. “... Our focus is how do we win here in 2019?”
The team isn’t lacking for motivation. None of this should play a role in the actual game against an English team that is very capable.
Yet this is probably the demarcation line. Win the World Cup, or at least reach the final, and the players have a tsunami of momentum, access to a massive bully pulpit and the goodwill of millions of adoring fans.
They will see surges in their marketability, social media platforms and endorsement potential, all of which can increase earning. The National Women’s Soccer League, where most compete and is supported by U.S. Soccer, should see a bump of support. A “Victory Tour” could be in the offering – a nine-city run in 2015 netted millions.
It’s all on the table: money, fame, power and an advantage in the lengthy fight for what they believe in. A World Cup doesn’t get them everything that they want. It doesn’t win them a court case. But it helps, certainly a lot more than a semifinal defeat on a weekday afternoon.
That’s just reality.
It’s not like the Americans didn’t have enough to play for on Tuesday.
But they actually are playing for even more than that.
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