AUCKLAND, New Zealand − The U.S. women got away from what got them here.
Not the tactics or the rotation or even personal performances. Go back further. All the way back, to when they first fell in love with this game. The gleeful abandon they felt in running up and down the field, chasing a ball or scoring a goal. Their delight in playing with their friends. That’s what’s been missing in this slog of a World Cup, one in which the USWNT has looked weighted down and lost as they’ve fallen short of everyone’s expectations including their own.
“We want this so badly that sometimes I think we lose track of why we started to play and why we’re here. It’s because we loved a game. We love playing and we love these moments,” Lynn Williams said Thursday
“It’s a lot of people’s first tournament, mine included, so you want to go out there and perform so badly that sometimes you forget about all of the joy and the reason you started. I think we have come together as a team, and we just need to get back to that.”
It sounds simplistic, or a rip-off of “Ted Lasso,” to think joy could make the difference between the USWNT crashing out in its earliest exit ever at a World Cup or Olympics in Sunday’s round-of-16 game against Sweden (5 a.m. ET) or keeping alive its chances of becoming the first team to win three consecutive titles. But the USWNT has often looked, if not miserable, burdened at this World Cup. As if they feel the weight of the expectations that come with being four-time World Cup champions and are consumed with the fear of screwing it all up.
Contrast that to the 2019 World Cup. The fun police took issue with the way the USWNT celebrated their goals in that opener against Thailand, along with the number of them. But there was no doubting the U.S. women were having a blast. It was, for them, soccer at its purest. It was easy, everything was clicking and they could just play.
That attitude carried throughout the tournament. Sure, there were tough moments. Minutes 10 through 76 against Spain comes to mind. Or the handful of seconds between when England’s Steph Hougton was standing over the penalty spot and Alyssa Naeher was smothering the ball.
But mostly, the USWNT exuded joy. And the confidence that comes with it. Megan Rapinoe’s “Are you not entertained?” pose after scoring the first of her two goals in the quarterfinals against France epitomized the team’s vibe. Even with all that was at stake − the World Cup title, their equal pay lawsuit against U.S. Soccer, their sanity amid the torrent of vitriol from their president − they were loose and they were chill.
Here, they’ve looked anything but. “It’s just (having) that confidence, that belief in ourselves to do what we are most special at. Each of us individually, but also as a team,” captain Lindsey Horan said. “We love this game so much. We’re so passionate about this game. We want to win as much as possible. And we want to play better. We all know that,” she added. “We want to play better and to find those little pieces of joy. Once we get that, once we get a little bit more of that joy back and that feeling, things are going to move a little bit better on the field. We’re going to have more confidence, and things will come.”
But how, exactly, does the USWNT find joy? It’s an existential question for everyone, of course. But with this particular group, in this particular moment, how does the USWNT regain a feeling that can’t be faked? And make sure, if they do, it’s not so fleeting it disappears with one bad possession or a bad half?
How do they play with the freedom they felt as young girls when they’ve grown into superstars? When the game they played because it was fun is now their job? They do it together, Williams said. “Of course we want to play better. But at the end of the day, we’re still getting results. So it’s just believing and continuing to do that,” she said. “And knowing that, `OK, if we miss one, let’s do it again and play with that joy.’ And take that responsibility on, every single person.” Joy won’t win the U.S. women another World Cup title. But they won’t win without it, either.