More than a game

As the U.S. women’s soccer team tries for another World Cup, the players inspire fans with their skill and their values

  • In the crowded Smithfield Hall in Chelsea, Katie Mathews, right, watches the U.S. Women’s National Team in their 3-0 victory over Chile. Photo: Emily Higginbotham

“I think there’s a level of moral outrage around the U.S. team being really, really competitive that doesn’t exist for men.”

Laura Reilley, a lifelong soccer player and fan

Manhattan’s foremost soccer bar, Smithfield Hall in Chelsea, was packed with fans Sunday who came to watch the U.S. Women’s National Team take on Chile in their second game of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France.

The crowd, many decked out in players’ jerseys, cheered and applauded each of the three goals the team scored to cruise past the Chilean side. It was a convincing follow up to the USWNT’s first showing in Reims, in which they beat an outmatched Thailand side 13 to zero.

But it’s more than decades of dominance in the sport that draws fan to this team. Many of the women on hand at Smithfield Hall on Sunday cited Mia Hamm and the 1999 squad, who beat China in penalty kicks to win the World Cup here at home, as women they could look up to and emulate growing up. From the current roster, they cite Megan Rapinoe; not only does she provide the best service into the box, but she provides visibility as an out member of the LGBTQ community. To them, Alex Morgan is not just one of the best strikers in the world; she, as well as many other high profile team members, used her platform to sue U.S. Soccer for pay equity with the men’s team, whose members make more money despite having much less success.

Representing the Best of America

To many fans, the team possesses the values the U.S. should represent on the world stage. It seems to them those values are absent from the current administration and its behavior as an actor in the world. While some 45,000 people came to Paris to watch the women’s second World Cup game, less than two weeks earlier nearly twice that number, by some estimates, marched in London to protest President Trump’s state visit to England.

“It’s probably super contradictory for other countries to kind of witness,” said Rita Skiba, 30, who came to watch the game at Smithfield Hall with her fiancé, Katie Mathews. “I think that it speaks to the fact that our current administration is not representative of what the majority of America values, so I really appreciate that the team shows their values on and off the field and is able to represent something that’s not being shown on the political scene right now.”

“I don’t know if I’ve ever really felt that the U.S. government has represented women, and I feel like that’s really relatable no matter what country you’re in,” Mathews added. “To have a team that’s so public facing, that’s made up of women and that’s advocating for something that’s kind of something that’s against the U.S. government, that’s probably really relatable to a lot of different people in a lot of different countries. I think other teams respect them for that right now.”

Fighting for Equal Pay

The players have put these values in action over the years. In 2016, a year after winning their third World Cup, five members of the teams filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission against U.S. Soccer, in which they alleged they were paid considerably less than the men’s team. They won more compensation in their next bargaining agreement. But in March of this year, the players filed a federal lawsuit, citing “institutional gender discrimination.” The say they are looking forward to a trial after this summer’s World Cup is over.

“I’m in the tech field and that’s a huge discrepancy,” said Mathews. “And to see a women’s team fully advocating for themselves, and going against a big organization like U.S. soccer is really hopeful,” .

Skiba and Mathews also share a love and respect or Megan Rapinoe, a player known for her creativity, dynamic style on the pitch and activism. Rapinoe, who recently told Yahoo Sports that she is a “walking protest of (the Trump) administration,” took a knee during the national anthem before two of the team’s games, in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and his protests.

“She’s really inspirational because a lot of people struggle with this balance,” Mathews said. “Being a woman in professional sports is already hard enough to establish yourself and make money. What you do off the field could put that at risk a little bit and to choose to do the right things and stay aligned with her core moral beliefs.”

A Controversial Victory

Following their lopsided victory over Thailand in their opening match, a debate ensued online about whether the U.S. should have racked up so many goals against an obviously inferior side, and especially, whether the players should have celebrated each one with so much gusto.

Laura Reilley, a lifelong soccer player who was watching at Smithfield Hall with friends, said playing to the best of your ability is about showing respect your opponent. The way teams advance in the World Cup, it matters how many goals a team scores. Tactically, Reilley said, it was smart to get as many goals as possible.

As for the celebrations, she thinks the debate stems from sexism. “In general it’s not good to smash a racquet on a tennis court, but when Serena Williams does it, it’s headline news everywhere. And when a man does it, it’s not,” Reilley said. I think there’s a level of moral outrage around the U.S. team being really, really competitive that doesn’t exist for men.”

Annie Hadley, another fan, said that whether the lopsided score line was bad for the game is debatable, but it shouldn’t affect how the world views what the team is doing on and off the field.

“I think that the World Cup is really interesting in terms of global diplomacy. The world comes together to compete, but also to interact and exchange things,” said Hadley. “The fact that they are out there being proudly feminist, a lot of them are proudly out lesbians, I think that says a lot about what the U.S. can be, and what it should be. I think that’s important for the world to see.”

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