With bravado and swagger, the US women’s national team conquered the 2019 World Cup. Their victory set the bar higher than ever for future USWNT rosters.
If you are going to say one thing about the US women’s national team that swept their way through the competition en route to defending the FIFA World Cup title in France, it is that they certainly lived up to what was considered by many to be a patronizing tournament slogan. The American women certainly “Dared to Shine” in all aspects, as they claimed the country’s fourth world title in women’s soccer.
If you are going to say another thing, it is that the rest of the world certainly showed that they are continuing to catch up to the Americans and the other traditional global powers. As the Netherlands showed in reaching the final, it is that a committed investment in women can pay quick dividends — especially in a locale where soccer is embedded in the local culture and tactical development is readily available through many qualified coaches.
Beyond the Netherlands, two African sides made it to the knockout stage for the first time in the eight-cycle history of the Women’s World Cup. Nigeria replicated their feat of getting out of the group stage in 1999, while Cameroon’s Indomitable Lionesses held pace with the progress they showed four years ago in Canada by also reaching the Round of 16. Both sides fell by 3-0 scores, against Germany and England respectively, but their presence in the final bracket of the tournament was a testament to the value of investing in the sport.
While the rest of the world showed glimpses of catching up to the Americans, though, the storyline was dominated by the Stars and Stripes this year. Just as Brandi Chastain’s shirtless genuflection remains the indelible image of the 1999 World Cup, the arms-aloft pose struck by Megan Rapinoe against France will remain the moment in time that adheres itself to the memory for decades to come.
That pose, struck in the quarterfinal victory over France at a point when controversy was swirling around her profanity-flecked comments about visiting the White House, was at once triumphant yet defiant. Both in the United States and around the globe, the celebratory pose quickly became a pop culture referent that came to set the tone for the entire event.
Winning draws plenty of fans as well as detractors. Usually, national team success unites a champion country, but the willingness of Rapinoe and others on the USWNT to seize their platform and voice their politics only expanded the chasm within an already polarized society to the point where many conservative Americans were actively rooting against the United States.
Even Donald Trump himself got in on the act, using Rapinoe’s comments as a platform to send several tweets tagging an individual who was decidedly not the USWNT star.
Amidst the charged atmosphere on the other side of the Atlantic, the American women blazed an unapologetic trail that illustrated the confident resolve of champions. In that way, Rapinoe and the Americans achieved not just victory in the tournament but a lasting place in the history of our times.
The early stages of the American run
Out of the gate, the United States set a precedent that they would run their race and apologize to nobody. In the Americans’ opener in Reims, they demolished Thailand 13-0 on June 11 to throw down a gauntlet to the rest of the field. For as much as a talent disparity that exists between the upstart Thai squad and the defending World Cup champions, such a wide margin of victory was still stunning to behold. Only up 3-0 at the intermission, the floodgates opened completely in the second half against their Thai counterparts.
The American women celebrated their good fortune throughout the match, drawing critiques for what came off as arrogance, insensitivity, and a lack of professionalism. Given the ongoing lawsuit against US Soccer around wage disparities between women and men who represent Americans on the global pitch, that last criticism seemed off-base. Even women as talented as the victorious World Cup roster sometimes struggle in a club-based landscape that centers on precarity and even women as historically successful as the Americans still find joy in new accomplishments.
In the next match against Chile five days later, the Yanks poured on the pressure but were consistently thwarted by otherworldly goalkeeper Christiane Endler. The Chilean shot-stopper was electric, parrying away attempt after attempt. She concluded the match with nine saves, as the Americans generated 26 total attempts on goal and put a dozen of those efforts on target. If not for Endler, the score would have almost certainly been much higher than the 3-0 final.
At that point, their spot in the next round already secure, the USWNT came into their final group stage contest against Sweden looking to gain as advantageous a draw in the knockout stage as possible. The Swedes, one of America’s recent nemeses in international competition, also hoped to finish top of Group F. Lindsey Horan put the US ahead in the third minute, and a Swedish own-goal early in the second half secured a 2-0 victory for the American squad.
Ensured of the top seed in the next stage thanks to a perfect plus-18 goal differential with zero goals allowed in their first three matches, the USWNT was ready to throw down against a whos-who of European sides.
Getting through the knockout rounds
Awaiting the Americans in the Round of 16 was a Spanish team that survived a tough Group B battle to finish second between Germany and China. Unintimidated by the US women, Spain conceded a quick goal on an early Rapinoe penalty attempt but equalized two minutes later when the Americans broke down and allowed Jennifer Hermoso to release a shot from outside the 18 that arced over Alyssa Naeher’s head and into the far corner of the net. Rapinoe potted another goal from the spot in the 75th minute, securing passage for her team in a tense affair in Reims.
Up next in the quarterfinals awaited the hosts. France reached the final eight after squeaking by Brazil 2-1 in extra time, and there were high hopes that Les Bleues could topple the defending champions. That dream evaporated quickly, as Rapinoe put the USWNT ahead five minutes into the match with a laser blast off a free kick just off the corner of the 18-yard box. Passing through bodies assembled in the box, the low effort skipped through and beat the keeper.
That, of course, was the goal that gave us the immortal pose.
The co-captain completed the brace in the 65th minutes, a goal that proved critical when Wendie Renard pulled one back for France in the 81st minute. Rapinoe’s finishing effort proved enough to advance past the home side to the semifinals.
Two days before Independence Day in the United States, the Americans took on an England squad intent on ruining the party for the reigning champions. But while the English played a pivotal role in the early development and dissemination of football codes around the globe, the Americans set the bar for the women’s game from an early stage.
Rapinoe sat out the match with a sore hamstring, giving Christen Press the opportunity to start. The move paid dividends almost immediately, as Press beat her marker to a cross and headed powerfully past English goalkeeper Carly Telford.
On the pitch, the two squads scrapped through a back-and-forth affair that gave USWNT fans real pause. The English side pushed the Yanks to their limit, and ultimately a VAR decision was the saving grace for the Americans. When it looked like Ellen White had equalized a second time deep into the second half, the video replay ultimately ruled her offside by the narrowest of margins. Goals from Christen Press and tea-sipping Alex Morgan secured the third straight appearance in the final for the US women.
Getting to the top of the mountain against the Dutch
That left one final hurdle for the Americans to overcome. Over the past decade, the Dutch women’s national team has gone from effectively nonexistent to the European champions. Running through a murderer’s row that included Canada and Cameroon in the group stage and Japan, Italy, and Sweden in the knockout rounds, the Netherlands set up a golden opportunity to thwart American ambitions to become the second women’s side ever to win back-to-back World Cups.
In the final, the Oranje entered the stadium in Lyon with a master plan to stymie the USWNT attack. For the first time in the tournament, the Americans failed to score in the first quarter-hour of play. Still scoreless at halftime, it looked like the Netherlands might have finally cracked the code for beating the US.
Then the Dutch made a critical mistake an hour into the match sealed the fate for both sides in the final.
Stefanie van der Gragt caught Alex Morgan in the box with a high boot, resulting in a penalty. Rapinoe coolly slotted the effort home as Dutch goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal guessed wrong. The goal, Rapinoe’s sixth of the tournament, calmed the Americans and deflated the Dutch.
Van Veenendaal came up big on several occasions to keep her side in the match. But when the Dutch defense allowed Rose Lavelle to split two markers and unleash a powerful left-footed blast from the edge of the box, there was nothing that could be done to prevent the Americans from doubling up the score.
While the Netherlands had opportunities to pull goals back, the Americans also botched a couple of gift-wrapped chances that might have opened the scoreboard gap even further.
When the final whistle pealed throughout Parc Olympique Lyonnais, the reigning champs celebrated the successful defense of their crown. Crowds erupted across the United States and elsewhere around the world, fans congregated to cheer on as the USWNT proved their dominance one final time.
How does this USWNT stack up against previous champions?
With their victory, the Americans became the first women’s side to win four World Cup titles. They joined an elite club of three men’s sides — Brazil, Germany, and Italy — that have pulled off the same feat.
When looking at the achievements on an individual basis, what the USWNT accomplished in France is impressive. While they finished the tournament with a +3.29 goal differential average per match, that placed them fifth among the eight Women’s World Cup champions since 1991. Even that 1991 USWNT side had a higher differential.
And that was itself padded by the fact that this year’s iteration of the Yanks scored half their goals for the entire tournament in that Thai obliteration in the opener.
What we should ultimately take away, though, is that the United States also achieved this most recent World Cup win against a field that is deeper and more diverse than ever before. Women’s soccer is growing across the globe, both in terms of participation and resource allocation, and that made this year’s USWNT title all the more impressive as a result.
This team also set itself apart from previous champions and previous iterations of the national team roster by bucking the overarching trend among athletes to avoid political issues. Proving themselves of a generation that is increasingly embracing its public platform, they offered neither platitudes nor apologies in speaking their minds.
For all that, this year’s World Cup champions elevated the bar on all levels for future USWNT rosters and for all national teams with championship aspirations moving forward. While the run of dominance on the pitch may not last forever, Rapinoe and the rest of the Americans wrote their own unique and definitive chapter in US soccer history that might be imitated but never replicated.