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NEW YORK – The contrast is jarring. For three and a half years, the United States women’s national team plays to minimal fuss. Games are regular, but seldom are they major events. There will be a TV broadcast and press coverage, but it isn’t the big-time, exactly. Even the Summer Olympics, where the U.S. women have won four gold medals and one silver in six editions, isn’t a tournament that gives the USA top billing.
And then along comes the Women’s World Cup, quadrennially. Suddenly, the glare from the cameras and stage lights is blinding. Literally. Players had to shield their eyes as they were bombarded by questions from 150 or so reporters, jerked from one direction to the next, recorded by a dozen TV cameras and endless handheld devices.
The moment you stepped off the elevator in Twitter’s Manhattan headquarters for the national team’s pre-Women’s World Cup media day on Friday, the brands and logos and red, white and blue assaulted you. Slowly but undeniably, the USA’s sendoff to this tournament has become a major event. A final tune-up game with Mexico awaits across the river at Red Bull Arena on Sunday, mind you, before the Americans’ title defense begins in France against Thailand on June 11.
You wouldn’t know the first meaningful game was still almost three weeks away though, going by the rah-rah vibe at the social media company’s thoughtful space – all self-gender-identified bathrooms, sustainably sourced menus and recyclable utensils. Federation logos were plastered everywhere, sponsors carefully placed in the background of the likeliest camera angles. Portraits of the 23 selected American players adorned the hallway, commissioned by various artists and to be displayed in major cities across the country. A new federation-issued app unlocks video content when you scan the images.
Thumping music led some French-accented Twitter vice president-of-something-or-other onto the stage to give an introduction and announce some kind of brand activation, in the corporate parlance.
The media ranged from hardcore women’s soccer outlets, to national media, to major morning shows, making for a dizzying breadth of inquiries.
“Emily, if you had to choose between wearing your hair down all the time and shaving it off, what would you do?”
“Mallory, it’s almost Father’s Day. What do you want to say to your dad?”
“Becky, does the equal pay [fight] add pressure at this World Cup?”
“Rose, what’s on your pre-game playlist?”
“Julie, why are you proud to represent America?”
“Julie, what’s your favorite movie?”
“Julie, how did you feel about the ending of Game of Thrones?”
“Julie, what’s your favorite food?”
“Julie, what’s your biggest pet peeve?”
There were a lot of questions about women’s rights writ large, about equality, about the growth of the women’s game. And, after Alex Morgan told Time magazine she’d refuse a visit to the White House should they win the whole thing, questions about how the other players felt about the political climate.
There was a lot of talk of winning a “fourth star.” To be adorned to the U.S. jersey if a fourth World Cup is indeed won.
Carli Lloyd, the 36-year-old star heading off to her fourth World Cup, whereupon she’ll turn 37, marveled at the scope of the interest. “Obviously, we’ve seen the women’s game grow tremendously,” she said. “It’s massive. Being here today, kicking it off with this press conference, it’s starting to get real. It’s growing and growing.”
She also mused about the impending end of her national team career, which may extend to a fourth Olympics in Tokyo next summer. “This being the fourth and, most likely, last World Cup of mine, I’m kind of just taking it day by day, embracing the journey a little bit more,” she said, breaking from her famously hyper-focused approach. “We get so stuck in looking ahead and not really embracing and being in the moment, I think the last couple of years have really taught me to just kind of be in the moment and savor each and every moment.”
Lloyd even allowed an extended exchange with a reporter over whether she’d be bringing her husband – whom she’d barred from coming to the last World Cup – or any other family to France. “I haven’t discussed it with my husband, to be quite honest,” she said. “If he happens to buy a flight and come over, there’s some tickets that may possibly be saved for him. If people want to fly over and surprise me, go ahead.” Then she broke into a smile.
The biggest crowds formed around Megan Rapinoe, one of the co-captains now at least as well known for her outspokenness and Colin Kaepernick-inspired national anthem kneeling as for her soccer. She’s become the team’s unofficial voice on all matters political and progressive. She was pelted with endless questions on, well, anything related to the condition of women. She endured it patiently, her delicate coif unruffled.
At the end of the whole deal, a FOX-themed foosball table was rolled out by the tournament’s broadcaster for a photo op with the whole team. But once the squad turned up, it pounced on the table and started playing fanatically, throwing things into chaos as the photographers and cameramen set upon them. The players paid them no mind, entranced by their game. Ear-piercing shrieks rose when goals were scored.
They just wanted to play soccer.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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