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CHICAGO — It all began in North Carolina, a year ago last Friday, after a week under a remarkably consistent early-autumn sun. On yet another 80-degree evening, the U.S. women’s national team set off on a journey that would help chart a course for the future of their sport.
Long before victory laps and “equal pay” rallying cries, before record-breaking turnouts and sponsorship influxes, there was a half-capacity crowd at a 10,000-seat stadium for a first competitive match in over two years. A day before, the greatest women’s soccer coach ever and one of her most popular players had climbed stairs to a cramped news conference room with shoddy Wi-Fi. A day before that, the USWNT had practiced in peace and quiet. On a side field, with no fans, and only three non-broadcast media members present.
Nine months before they won the World Cup, and 12 months before they finished celebrating, they were implementing a plan to conquer a sport that never goes to plan. And that, right there, is the contradictory beauty in all of this. Jill Ellis began plotting back in 2016. And in many ways, despite turbulence, her plot came to fruition. Her first-choice 11 on a Tuesday morning in early October were her first-choice 11 on the way to France. Ten of the 11 started on July 7. Her detailed gameplans and tactical tweaks, the products of strenuous days and collaborative study, helped the USWNT claim a fourth star.
Yet that first-choice 11? They never took the field together in France.
That plan? In so many pivotal moments, it could have gone awry. The 2019 U.S. women’s national team could have failed spectacularly. Its otherworldly confidence could have been misappropriated by history as arrogance, the reason for an unforgivable flop.
Instead, Megan Rapinoe never missed; opponents did. Spanish and Dutch defenders made foolish challenges; American defenders didn’t. Christen Press scored the biggest goal of her life, and Lindsey Horan picked out the cross of her life, and Alyssa Naeher made the save of her life, and Rose Lavelle punctuated the tournament of her life.
Soccer can be prepared for but not scripted. On those tranquil but intense days in North Carolina, some USWNT players perhaps envisioned what their rigorous preparation could yield. “We always felt like it was gonna be big,” Rapinoe says of what was to come.
“But I don’t think anyone could’ve expected ... just the series of events in France, and everything that led to the mania.”
[More: Jill Ellis’ moments]
To recap, for those who forget how maniacal it was: The U.S. women breezed through qualifying, cementing themselves as World Cup favorites and attracting pressure to repeat. As the tournament approached, they sued their own federation, embraced their roles as spokeswomen for social movements, and said they weren’t going to the White House before they’d even been invited.
“The f---ing White House,” Rapinoe clarified, a comment that later sparked a mini feud with the President, who told her to “WIN first before she TALKS!” Precisely two days later, she scored two decisive goals amid a “total s---show circus” in one of the most anticipated matches in women’s soccer history. That was the quarterfinal, a much-anticipated occasion to which the U.S. rose. But only after surviving a Spanish scare, before holding off England thanks to a goalkeeper many had labeled a weakness, and then backing up their talk and brashness in style, once and for all, on the back of a pale, unassuming 24-year-old from Cincinnati who one year earlier had gone 14 injury-ravaged months without a USWNT start; who two years earlier had played a match with homework assignments written on her hand; and who four days later tweeted that seeing an English bulldog wearing shoes was “tied for the best thing to happen to me all week.”
After the triumph came the nonstop transatlantic bender, and the ticker-tape parade, and the “equal pay” choruses, and the attention. There were late-night TV show appearances and ESPY awards and more interview requests than press officers or agents could even comprehend.
The celebration didn’t really end until this past Sunday, the final match of a five-stop victory tour, when 33,027 visited Soldier Field. One of the 33,027 leapt from the stands down onto the field, evading security, to hug Carli Lloyd. Hundreds clamored for players’ autographs or game-worn gear.
It was a far cry from the scene 367 days earlier. Now the question becomes: How much of the mania is here to stay?
The impact and legacy of the 2019 USWNT
Back in North Carolina, three days before qualifying began last fall, Rapinoe sat in a team-hotel lobby talking about platforms. (Among other things.) The USWNT, she explained, has always had one – at least since she arrived on the scene last decade. “We reach a lot of people,” she told Yahoo Sports. “And what we say is impactful.”
Yet as she prepared for her first World Cup eight years ago, only 5,852 spectators attended a sendoff friendly in North Jersey.
Four years later, in large part thanks to her team’s 2011 exploits, Red Bull Arena was packed. A post-World Cup victory tour drew a six-game average of 31,888. The 2010s USWNT didn’t build a fan base and platform from scratch, but it absolutely inflated both. And it did so via World Cup Bumps. Specifically, moments, which captured a mainstream audience and then held on to some fraction of it. Most of the 25.4 million sets of eyes that watched the 2015 final faded away for four years. But some stuck around, the post-tournament baseline higher than the pre-tournament one. That’s been the pattern of interest in American soccer, and especially women’s soccer. And there is a correlation between interest and platform size.
“ and ‘19 certainly have made our voices bigger,” Rapinoe said Sunday. This past summer amplified them more than ever before. Players, especially Rapinoe, became torchbearers for nationwide campaigns, in particular those related to women’s rights. And that, it seems, will be 2019’s distinct legacy. Victory tour attendance increased slightly. The number of young girls who’d rave to their mothers about catching a glimpse of Alex Morgan increased slightly. Revenue generation surely reached all-time highs.
But just as Rapinoe likes to say about her team’s battle for better treatment, this is about more than just numbers or money.
“People want a more equitable society in general,” she said Sunday, almost three months removed from her fame’s peak. “We’re sort of the vehicle to talk about it right now, which, honestly … that’s one of the most amazing things about the World Cup. Now we get to use this incredible tournament, and something we love so much, to talk about something that’s so much bigger, and affects so many more people.
“It’s pretty amazing to be able to do that, and to know that we’re a part of that; to see that; to realize that, yes, we’re fighting for it, but everybody else is as well.”
As for 2019’s long-term impact on the sport, that will be gauged by the NWSL’s continued growth. Lavelle and Jessica McDonald said they’ve been pleased with the World Cup Bump the league has received. Budweiser latched on as the NWSL’s first beer sponsor. Attendance is up, significantly. So is an unquantifiable buzz.
Rapinoe’s take was a bit more tempered, but generally positive. “I don’t think I’m totally satisfied, of course,” she said with how the league has capitalized on World Cup interest. “There’s a million things that could be done. But I think it’s a step in the right direction. Obviously I would like to see a lot more corporate sponsorship – like, it’s not all up to the fans, it’s not all up to us. We’re doing all that we can. A lot of the fans are doing all they can. Clearly there’s a missing investment step, or investment piece, that I feel needs to be a lot bigger.”
The overarching feeling is that the league will come out of 2019 on firmer ground than it entered on. “And hopefully it just keeps continuing to grow,” Lavelle says. Hopefully, she adds, swelling interest is “something we can build on, and not something we have to reestablish every year there’s a World Cup.”
And as for the individual lives of the recently-crowned world champs?
Some, like McDonald’s, have changed “completely.” Schedules have gotten busier. Speaking engagements, McDonald says, are “one of my favorite things to do, just to be able to tell my story. And my why. Why I’m here. It’s just an incredible thing I’m able to share with the world, and to be able to do it when people are reaching out to me instead of me reaching out to them – that’s where the script kind of flipped for me.”
Across the board, social media followings have skyrocketed. Appearance requests have multiplied. But players who weren’t keen on change haven’t had it forced upon them. Lavelle says that her life, at last when she’s not being stalked by TMZ reporters, hasn’t.
What every single one of them now has, however, are unique experiences, and a unique bond, defined by memories that only they will ever have and feelings only they will ever feel.
Why the USWNT’s 2019 journey was special
In sports, as in life, journeys inevitably end. This one did on Sunday. The group of 23 players and countless staffers who reported to California in May, and who celebrated in Lyon in July, scattered for the final time. In all likelihood, they will never be together in an analogous environment again. They will never laugh like they laughed, work like they worked, cry like they cried or party like they partied.
But whereas a vast majority of sports teams live their final moments together in the shadow of despair and defeat, the 2019 USWNT split in celebration. After one last fun training session and one last low-pressure, “lax” game. After time for reminiscing and reflection and thank yous.
So unlike 67 of 68 college basketball teams every March, and unlike 31 international soccer outfits the past two summers, the 2019 USWNT’s end was not heartbreaking. It was, as multiple players described it, “bittersweet.”
Before long, there will be offseasons and mental resets. A new coach to adapt to, and an Olympic gold to chase. But their success gave them one last opportunity to rehash the “whirlwind,” and to enjoy one another. To savor their bonds.
“It’s such an intimate environment in so many ways,” Rapinoe said Sunday of the national team. “You’re with these people more than you’re with anyone else. And you’re also with them in a very vulnerable way. Because everyone is just doing it to reach this one goal, and everything else gets stripped away. There’s no room for ego or personal achievements. Everyone has to be on board to achieve what you’re doing.”
The dozens of women and men who comprised the 2019 USWNT spent hundreds of hours preparing for the biggest moments of their lives. They pushed one another. Helped one another. Challenged one another. Trusted one another. No matter how much they prepared to defend a world-class winger or glide by a world-class midfielder or beat a world-class goalkeeper, though, they still had to do it. No amount of prep could guarantee that they would.
Yet they did. Under unfathomable pressure to do it, they did.
And on Sunday, with the team bus awaiting them, they could finally step back and consider how incredible the validation of all that work and all that trust truly was.
“[You realize] how difficult it is to get to a World Cup, and to be as successful as we have, and to get to a World Cup final, and to actually win it,” Rapinoe said. “I mean, it’s such an indescribable experience. You’re in it, the grind, everyday.
“And all the ups and downs, all the different lineups, different formations, the doubts, and everything. To actually be able to accomplish our goal is something really special. And something that you can’t really put into words. You’ve either been there, and you know how it feels, or you kind of watch it from the outside and we try to explain it the best we can. It’s just something special that only we’ll have.”
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