America Isn’t in the Women’s World Cup Final, but the Team’s Legacy Is All Around Us

The Women’s World Cup final is this weekend, and there’s something missing: Americans. The barrier-shattering U.S. women’s national team, historically so dominant in the sport, not only didn’t qualify for the final; it had its poorest showing ever in the tournament. By far.

Since its devastating loss to Sweden this month, the pile-on has been intense. The outcome was “fully emblematic of what is happening to the our once great Nation under Crooked Joe Biden,” Donald Trump wrote on Truth Social.

“WOKE EQUALS FAILURE,” he added, referring to the team’s many battles for equal pay and social justice.

Megyn Kelly, a former Fox News host, said she was “thrilled they lost.” Americans reveling in American loss.

The U.S. team certainly fell short of its best in this tournament. But few of the women’s recent critics supported this team when they were champions, either. This is no ordinary “Shut up and play.” What they really seem to be saying is: Just shut up.

That’s absurd. The only reason this team has a game to play at all — a right to the same work opportunities that most men can take for granted — is through speaking out. For these players, fighting is existential. In that way, the experience of the U.S. women’s team reflects the confounding experience of so many women trying to make a case for their callings and careers around the world.

Let’s go back to Guangdong, China, November 1991. That was the setting chosen by FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, for the first Women’s World Cup. The province had risen anew from a river delta and was looking to host something important. Instead, it got the consolation prize of women’s soccer, a sport nothing like the glory of soccer played by men. Games were 80 minutes instead of the standard 90. (“They were afraid our ovaries were going to fall out,” the U.S. team captain, April Heinrichs, quipped later.) That didn’t stop organizers from cramming games into a schedule of every other day, affording the players half the rest typically given to men.

That wasn’t all. The male organizers of the tournament seriously considered having the women play with a smaller ball — a size used by children. The American women wore secondhand men’s jerseys, the main question around attire being whether there was a way to shorten their shorts. This wasn’t business, after all; it was spectacle: a feel-good staging of something that, in many people’s eyes, didn’t matter.

“It was a special pleasure for me to watch these young ladies playing with such flair and such elegance,” the president of FIFA enthused at the time. It made soccer “into a celebration.”

It’s easy to think of this as ancient history and therefore less relevant to female athletes today, but it was less than a generation ago. When I caught up this week with one of that early American team’s stars, Michelle Akers, she had just dropped off her teenage son at college.

“It was up to us to survive and compete and win,” she told me about that time. She kept hearing something that will be familiar to others who have tried to break into spaces designed with someone else in mind: “Be happy to be there. Take what you get.”

So in 1995, the team went on strike over Olympic bonuses. The women won. In 1999, they decided to strike again, this time for higher wages. Management was shocked. “The message was: You’re being greedy,” Ms. Akers recalled. But the women didn’t stop there. In 2016 they began a remarkable legal fight over pay parity with the U.S. men’s team. (The best World Cup finish for the American men’s team was third place, in 1930.) The women argued that despite their best-in-world status, they were still treated as inferior to the men’s team in their own country. They received less pay and less support. Finally, in 2022 they won a $24 million settlement and a pledge for equal pay.

It was an extraordinary victory, one as significant as any trophy. It was never intended to be a trade-off between winning and fair pay. But America has long struggled to understand that perfection is not a precondition for equality. In women’s soccer, at least, now is our chance.

It won’t be easy. Women’s sports have long been relegated to the realm of inspiration and the inessential. Men’s sports are where you make money, even when you lose. Amid this, female athletes have carved out our own approach, because we have had to.

This is not all bad. The team’s long, tormented relationship with inequality has certainly led the women to work harder. (Recall its 13-0 evisceration of Thailand in the last World Cup.) Naturally, that dominance raised other questions: Were they sportsmanlike? Were they winning by too much? But the strategy made sense. Perfection, after all, is a great case for landing a raise.

Its quest for legitimacy also led the team to embrace the other women around them and to stand for values as much as a conventional understanding of success. You can share the struggle with your rivals and still annihilate them on the field.

When the American women headed to China back in 1991, they knew having their own food could give them an edge, so they brought pasta with them to cook at the hotel. (Otherwise, what was on offer was unlimited Snickers bars — the event was sponsored by Mars — or the stuff of Chinese banquets.) The Swedish team, staying in the same hotel, saw what they were up to and asked if they could share. The Americans obliged.

For the members of the U.S. women’s team, the goal wasn’t about making a spot for yourself as one outstanding woman in a sea full of men. They had no choice but to make it about something bigger: establishing the case for the legitimacy of professional women’s sports altogether.

And it’s worked — so well, in fact, that the American women now have to raise their game to keep up with the rest of the world, which has risen to meet the standard they set.

That said, leading works best when you win. After the Americans shared their spaghetti back in 1991, they beat the Swedes the next day. Then they won the whole tournament. There have been nine Women’s World Cups in history; the American women have won four. The team has been so good that Americans have begun taking their women’s team’s success for granted, even as we make its members fight for their legitimacy.

The American women’s team has built a legacy of thriving amid challenge, representing American optimism at its best. And when has the landscape been better for female athletes than now? They know what many of us believe: The best is still ahead.

But we have to work for it. It’s fair to question the team’s recent performance on the field, provided you valued its performance in the first place. “I wasn’t truly confident in this team winning the World Cup,” Carli Lloyd, a U.S. women’s team veteran of 17 years, told The Athletic this week. “I think there’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance,” she added. The American women don’t need to be coddled. They lost their pedestal, and it’s worth thinking hard about why.

As the U.S. star Megan Rapinoe has said many times, you have to earn your platform if you want people to respect what you say. On Aug. 6, she took her last shot of her international career, when it mattered most, in a penalty kick — and she missed the goal altogether. It was awful.

But no one rises forever.

Painful as that moment was, we are witnessing a seismic change in women’s soccer that is incredibly exciting. Both finalists this year, Spain and England, are first-time contenders for the global title. Both countries now have equal pay structures for their men’s and women’s teams. This, too, is astonishingly recent. In England, for example, women were barred from playing organized soccer for 50 years, until 1971 — a common theme for women’s sports around the world. Now the world is catching up with America and will continue to push higher. Hopefully they’ll share their spaghetti, too.

Lindsay Crouse is a writer and producer in Opinion. She is a competitive athlete and produced the series “Equal Play,” which led to widespread change in women’s sports.

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