Like Hemingway’s response to how one goes bankrupt, “gradually, then suddenly,” so did the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team meet their demise in the current World Cup being contested in Australia and New Zealand. The two-time defending champions were ousted in the Round of 16 by a game Sweden squad by the narrowest of margins (less than a millimeter) on a deflected shot in a penalty shootout that was in the Americans’ firm control until inexplicable misses by rising star Sophia Smith, exiting veteran Megan Rapinoe and Kelley O’Hara set the stage for the bizarre winner by Sweden’s Lina Hurtig. For Rapinoe and her multi-colored coifs, it was a painful end to a storied career.
The loss was not completely unexpected as the USWNT played listlessly in their sluggish victory over Viet Nam (albeit a better ending than our last foray against the country in the ’60s and ‘70s), and ties with the Netherlands and Portugal, a game that came within inches of ending the U.S. hopes a round earlier, when a last second Portuguese shot hit the post. The U.S. struggled to blend such aging stars as Alex Morgan, Rapinoe and Crystal Dunn with talented but inexperienced newcomers like Smith, Trinity Rodman and Naomi Girma.
The game against Sweden finally showed the U.S. at its best, but they were stymied by Swedish goalkeeper Zecira Musovic time and time again, with 11 saves. Rapinoe looked a tad slow as she gamely filled her unaccustomed role as a substitute while veteran co-captain Lindsey Horan controlled the midfield and recent mom Julie Ertz was a stalwart in the back. But the U.S. lacked its offensive spark plug, Rose Lavelle, who was suspended after accumulating two yellow cards in prior games. And as so frequently occurs in soccer as in no other sport, a clearly dominant team can lose the match by a cruel twist of fate.
The USWNT has been the overwhelming force in women’s soccer, with four World Cups. But the rise of European teams, including Sweden, the Netherlands, England and Germany, which itself bombed out at the Group stage, due to their countries’ belated recognition that not only men can play the sport at the highest level, may mean the end of American hegemony, or at least a permanent leveling of the playing field.
For those of us who endured the Sweden match bleary-eyed, with its 5 am East Coast kick-off, it was both shocking and painful. But at least one American reveled in the loss. Ex-President Donald Trump, who takes umbrage at the team’s social stances, including fighting for equal pay, gender equity and LGBTQ+ rights, and his personal affront at Rapinoe’s refusal to visit the White House after the U.S. captured the 2019 Cup, cheered the loss. His take on social media? “WOKE EQUALS FAILURE. Nice shot Megan, the USA is going to Hell!!! MAGA.”
Trump can only wish that he could possess the determination and grit of the USWNT who, despite their disappointing performance, represented the best of our country. They can proudly wear the Red, White and Blue. If justice prevails, Trump will be confined to wearing only Prison Blue.