The United States Women’s National Team lost. The defending Women’s World Cup champions fell to Sweden in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympics on penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw went into extra time.
To soccer fans, it was a shocking early exit for a team that was expected to medal, and even win gold, in Rio. To the casual sports fan, it was a disappointment from the team that brought joy and excitement to the game of soccer in the United States last summer. It’s the earliest exit by a U.S. team in Olympic women’s soccer history ever, and it caused its share of controversy. USWNT goalkeeper Hope Solo called the Swedish national team “a bunch of cowards” after the match:
Sweden’s coach, Pia Sundhage, who coached the U.S. for five years, responded to Solo’s comments by saying “I’m going to Rio, she’s going home,” and then the Internet reacted.
It happened. So what happens next?
The Americans are still the best in the world. This loss didn’t change that. They’re going to have a good chance of winning the 2018 CONCACAF Women’s Championship, which they won in 2014, and they’re going to qualify for the 2019 World Cup in France. They’re going to win a host of friendlies: they’ve already won six of the seven they’ve played in 2016. And as for the Hope Solo drama, it’s true that what she said was inappropriate and embarrassing to both her team and her country. But it’s also true that her time as keeper for the USWNT was already ticking down.
Slate compared her to Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, but instead of in the “best player in the world” kind of way, they said that both Ronaldo and Solo have surpassed their prime, and aren’t their team’s most valuable player anymore. She’ll be almost 38 for the next World Cup. The USWNT is already moving towards younger players: veterans Abby Wambach, Christie Rampone and Lauren Holiday have all retired in the past year, and the success of 18-year-old forward Mallory Pugh shows the bright future that is the U-20 National Team, which has qualified for the 2016 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup (Pugh played with the U-20s during WC qualifying) that starts in November. Even if Solo didn’t make those comments on Thursday, her days in net for the US were already numbered.
It’s not so much about what they do next. It’s about what we do.
This happens every time the USWNT plays in a big-name tournament like the World Cup or the SheBelieves Cup or the Olympics. We care for however many games they play. We’re excited when they win, and we get angry when they lose. Back in 2015, the U.S.-Japan final of the World Cup averaged 25.4 million viewers, making it the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history.
Yet, seven of the nine friendlies the USWNT played in the five months after they won the World Cup never reached the average number of viewers (567,000) who watched the ten friendlies the U.S. Men’s National Team played in 2015.
And when they lose, we get takes like this:
Here’s where the pot calls the kettle black. There’s a lot that Darren Rovell’s employer, ESPN, does well. Women’s soccer coverage is not one of them.
It’s easier to find scores from the Canadian Football League on ESPN.com than it is to find out how the Portland Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League (the home club of four members of the USWNT) are doing this season.
There’s a lot that Sports Illustrated does well. But if you search “NWSL” on SI.com, four of the six stories that show up either deal with a problem in the league (“NWSL Holds Match on Small Field”) or question the league’s durability (“NWSL boasts elite talent, but is it set up to avoid downfalls of past leagues?”) The last time a game recap was written on SI.com on an NWSL match? In October 2015, when FC Kansas City beat the Seattle Reign in the NWSL Championship Game.
Thirty-eight players from the National Women’s Soccer League were on 12 national team rosters for this year’s Olympics. According to the L.A. Times, the NWSL league players in the Olympics played “more than 36% percent of the total minutes combined for their respective teams”. Seventeen of the eighteen players on the USWNT’s Olympic roster play on NWSL teams.
Maybe we should use all of this energy that we put into saying that Hope Solo shouldn’t be on the USWNT after her comments (which isn’t necessarily wrong) and that the US disappointed during this Olympics (which also isn’t wrong) and realize that women’s soccer isn’t over as soon as a big tournament ends.
We shouldn’t act like this is the last time until World Cup qualifying starts in 2018 that we’ll ever get to see Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd on the same field again because it isn’t. You can see them on September 3, when Morgan’s Orlando Pride and Lloyd’s Houston Dash face off in Houston. For the record, there will be a total of thirteen Olympians from four countries on the field in that game alone.
It’s true that the NWSL isn’t on the same level as other pro sports in the United States. It’s not even close. Last year’s championship game attracted 167,000 viewers, the most of the entire 2015 season. To put that in context of TV ratings with other sports, the final game of the Las Vegas NBA Summer League between the Chicago Bulls and the Minnesota Timberwolves, which aired at 9:00 PM Eastern Time on a Monday night in July, still scored 366,000 viewers.
But it’s also not trying to be. Yes, it’s home to some of the best and most captivating athletes in the world, but it’s also a growing league with its faults. It’s an accomplishment that the NWSL has made it this far: in the past fifteen years, two pro-leagues have been created and then folded. One team in the NWSL, the Western New York Flash, has played in four different professional leagues over the course of its eight-year existence.
These players already have enough things to fight for. Despite all of the distractions and the title of the “best team in the world”, they still have to fight to win each game they play. They have to fight so they can be paid the same amount that the members of the USMNT are paid, a battle they’re still fighting, even after three World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals.
They have to fight just to have safe fields to play on–something that’s come up twice recently: in the 2015 Women’s World Cup and the U.S. Victory Tour, and in July, when an NWSL match (which, by the way, featured three Olympians) was played on a field that was more than ten feet too small, which may seem like nothing, but just wait until you see the pictures. They even have to fight so they can stay at hotels that don’t come with bed bugs and mold.
Gold medal or not, they’re champions. Champions for continuously teaching the kids of America and the kids of the world that, as President Barack Obama said last year, “playing like a girl means playing like a bad-ass”.
Don’t make them fight for your attention, too.