Can there possibly be a soccer team anywhere in the world whose players are adored, admired and cheered on as affectionately by their fans as the U.S. women’s national team?
I’ve certainly never witnessed the kind of unconditional love from a stadium crowd as I did in a packed Toyota Stadium on Wednesday evening when goals by Alex Morgan and Mallory Swanson led the USA to a 2-1 win over Brazil.
At men’s games in various parts of the world I’ve seen fanatical enthusiasm for club or country. But those supporters, who idolize players and savor in their victories with extreme emotions, also demonstrate their disappointment to losses or poor play emphatically, even belligerently.
Among the 17,784 fans in Frisco, Texas, were thousands of girls — teens and pre-teens — wearing U.S. colors and replica jerseys. One group of six girls ages 6 to 8 donned matching Alex Morgan jerseys. Many of the men and women dressed up as well.
After the game, a woman mentioned that she was impressed with the resounding ovation that greeted Megan Rapinoe’s entry in the 71st minute. “I didn’t expect that in Texas,” she said, and shared with me some of the disturbingly vicious comments her workplace colleagues had made about Rapinoe because of her stands on social justice.
There were periods in the game when U.S. players mis-hit simple passes and I expected the jeers that would have followed from fans of other teams. Not so with USWNT fans, who I soon realized were supporters in the true sense of the word.
While I was watching the game with eyes on what wasn’t going well with the U.S. play, such as poor first touches or inaccurate passes I wouldn’t expect from the world’s elite players, the fans focused on and celebrated all that went well. They were rewarded with Morgan’s wonderful goal just before halftime. (I would have liked to see the jubilation from those six little girls.)
Rose Lavelle, coming off injury, misplayed pass after pass. Unlike the fans, I had written off the chances of Lavelle making a contribution on Wednesday evening. But, after pouncing on the ball in midfield ahead of a lunging Brazilian, she dribbled swiftly upfield and with a well-timed pass set up the goal by Swanson that ended up being the gamewinner.
Had the USA lost, I imagine the fans would have still cheered them at the final whistle.
There was something delightful in the atmosphere at Toyota Stadium, where fans found so much joy in watching these women play — and even warm up, for that matter — while never behaving in way that makes one wonder — as one often does in stadiums and arenas — whether fans are taking sports too seriously.
The victory, following wins over Canada and Japan, earned the USA the 2023 SheBelieves Cup crown and nearly the entire crowd, not concerned about getting home on a weeknight, remained in place for the trophy ceremony.
U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski somewhat downplayed the significance of the achievement.
“We enjoy winning,” he said. “We enjoy winning the title, but the whole time while we’re in camp, we’re talking about [how] it’s not just about this tournament. It’s about preparation for the World Cup.
“The fact we were able to do well against such great opponents, all three of them, is very motivating us. We believe we still have a few things to fix and get better from it.”
Regarding my critique of Wednesday’s U.S. performance, someone told me, “You must have been watching a different game." I’d like to think I was watching the same game differently. Looking for what needed to be better if the USA hoped to win the World Cup this summer. The Americans lifted the 2019 World Cup but finished third at the Olympics in 2021 — and suffered friendly losses to England, Spain and Germany in 2022.
While observing Japan beat Canada in Wednesday’s opener, I marveled at the Japanese skill, from adept first touches that put the ball in the perfect place for the second touch, to passes delivered optimally to teammates and swift combination play under pressure in tight spaces. It was a degree of individual skill that exceeded what I felt the U.S. players generally display.
Yet the USA beat Japan, 1-0, on Sunday and is unbeaten against Japan in their last 12 meetings. Wednesday’s win was the USA’s sixth straight over Brazil.
Things to fix must certainly include the post-Julie Ertz midfield, which needs to play more cohesively, control the rhythm of the game and possess the ball for longer phases. That would make it easier for forwards to shed markers and make the forays of the outside backs less predictable.
The return of Lyon-based Catarina Macario, who’s racing to return from an ACL injury, would be a significant boost.
U.S. women’s national team traits that aren’t lacking: pleasing their fans and a knack for winning.
Photo: Daniela Porcelli/ISI Photos