TOKYO — The United States women’s national team got blown out the other night, 3-zip to Sweden. The game wasn’t even that close. It stunk.
“It was crap,” midfielder Lindsay Horan said.
What followed was an onslaught of criticism, rare for a team that almost never loses.
It came from fans frustrated by the team’s play and concerned about its chances here at the Tokyo Olympics. It came from the media, who picked apart the poor performance. And it came from detractors who for whatever reason, mostly political, don’t like them and were reveling in the loss.
Megan Rapinoe read and heard plenty of it.
“I know what it is,” she said. “I’m on social media. I’m not a hermit.”
Yet her reaction to waves of criticism didn’t bother her. She sort of liked it, actually. She was heartened by it even.
Part of that is Rapinoe being Rapinoe; she puts herself out there and has never shied away from a fight.
Part of it is that she sees the reaction as an unlikely sign of respect not just for this powerhouse team, but women’s sports in general.
“I always welcome the criticism,” Rapinoe said Saturday after the U.S. responded by blitzing New Zealand, 6-1, to keep its gold medal hopes in play. “For women’s sports, criticism in the media still needs to get better.”
And by better, she didn’t mean softer or less frequent. Rapinoe sees how men’s sports are treated. The NFL is the most popular sport in America and no player or team or coach is immune from getting debated, ripped, scolded or anything else.
Sometimes deserved. Sometimes not. It’s part of the job.
Once women’s sports is treated like that, then maybe that’s when it’s truly arrived.
“It says to me that people are watching the games and understand the importance of games and understand different teams,” Rapinoe said. “I don’t mind that stuff. I think everything they said was right. We didn’t play well. Sweden did get the better of us.”
It’s not like Rapinoe is ever shy. On the field, she plays a high-energy game, sports colored hair and has created an iconic, signature goal celebration. Off of it, she willingly stands up and speaks out on whatever issue she feels merits it. She spent half of the 2019 World Cup in a back-and-forth with Donald Trump. She knew the stakes.
She can take it. All of it. A bad game? Please. Treat us like you’d treat a men’s team, or how the women’s team treats itself.
“The beauty of the sport is you learn a lot every game, regardless if you win or lose,” midfielder Julie Ertz said. “I actually think you learn more when you lose.”
It just rarely loses. Sweden ended a 44-game win streak. That doesn’t mean the players have thin-skin.
“Being in a position where all of my career we are one of the best teams or the best team in the world, if you can’t take that kind of criticism, then you are probably not going to be here that long,” Rapinoe said.
She is hardly unique. From Ertz and Horan, from Carly Lloyd and Crystal Dunn, from Kelly O’Hara and Alex Morgan and on and on this is a proud, strong group of women.
Forget the magazine covers and television commercials, forget the fame and fortune they’ve earned through winning, this is a group that rarely gives an inch in any part of their lives.
So when they do eventually get run over, they’ll take the heat. They probably agree with it.
“We need to be ruthless,” said Lloyd. “Ruthless, grit, heart, fight. Those should be the standard things we bring to every game … That is a switch that should never be switched off.”
It’s not that winning these tournaments is ever easy, but there appears to be a realization that this one will be particularly challenging. The core of this team, which has won consecutive World Cups, is aging, with eight key members at least 32 years of age.
This is an encore performance, a chance to run it back that won’t come again. They can’t just sprint by opponents though. They can’t just out talent them. This gold medal is going to be a dog fight.
“This tournament is wild,” Ertz said. “The Olympics are hard.”
This is a team that through the years has inspired a million young athletes, many of them young girls. It preaches real stuff: empowerment, courage, discipline, self-worth.
That loss to Sweden wasn’t the kind of soccer it wanted to play. But the players’ reactions to the reaction — from fair critiques to trolling vitriol — says they aren’t just a bunch of empty mottos. They aren’t seeking some safe shelter.
Bring it on, they were all saying. The more people criticize, Rapinoe said, the more people care. That’s how it works on the biggest stages in sport — which generally are reserved for men.
It’s actually a sign of deference, of respect; one that may say more about what this team, and these women, have accomplished than a million compliments and cheers.
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