The United States women’s national soccer team will play the Netherlands on Sunday with a chance to win a fourth World Cup title, and there was a time not so very long ago that I wouldn’t have cared enough to watch.
It’s not a gender issue. I’m just not the soccer type.
Or, at least, I wasn’t until the past few weeks, when it became apparent that there was something about this team that made it impossible to ignore.
Maybe it was the athletic arrogance that allowed the players to shrug off the criticism they encountered for excessive celebration during their 13-0 victory over Thailand in the first game of the group stage.
Some of it was deserved, but the important thing is it did nothing to slow their roll through that stage and the first three games of the knockout round. They won each of those games by the same 2-1 score and made more headlines off the field when midfielder Megan Rapinoe told a reporter she would not accept an invitation to the White House if and when the U.S. won the title.
Rapinoe, you might recall, was one of the few non-NFL athletes to take a knee during the national anthem to show solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. So, no one should have been surprised by her Dixie Chicks moment in France. But when it comes to stoking the surging popularity of soccer in America, any publicity is good publicity.
She got an instant response from President Trump, who tweeted an invitation to the U.S. women to visit the White House whether they win the World Cup title or not but chided Rapinoe for getting ahead of herself.
“I am a big fan of the American Team, and Women’s Soccer,” Trump tweeted, “but Megan should WIN first before she TALKS! Finish the job!”
Whether you agree or disagree with Rapinoe's politics, she is part of a soccer team that has never shied away from controversy and remains embroiled in a lawsuit with USA Soccer over the huge disparity in compensation between the women’s and men’s teams.
The federal gender discrimination suit was filed on International Women’s Day in March and charges that in some cases a member of the women’s team is paid 38% of what a similarly situated male player receives. The matter is complicated by the fact that the working conditions of the men and women are collectively bargained separately.
Still, when you consider that the women have been far more successful than the men in World Cup competition — winning three titles so far to none — it’s hard to justify the fact that the women were paid significantly less for winning the title in 2015 than the men got for losing in the round of 16 the year before.
Sounds like a compelling case, which would be bolstered by a victory over the Dutch team Sunday.
That might be far from preordained, but the U.S. women have been well-tested throughout the knockout round and have never blinked. They held off England with a terrific penalty save by goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher in the semifinal round for their third straight one-goal victory after outscoring opponents 18-0 during the group stage.
So, the U.S. team is predictably a heavy favorite to come home with a second straight World Cup title. The oddsmakers have made the Netherlands almost an 8-1 underdog, even though the Dutch team is the reigning European champion, owns a string of 12 straight international tournament victories and has given up just one goal in the knockout round.
Don’t worry about the Americans getting complacent. With a victory Sunday, they will own half of the eight World Cup titles since the women’s tournament was inaugurated in 1991.