USMNT fails to qualify for World Cup, internet reminds everyone we have a badass women’s team
On Tuesday night, the unthinkable happened for American soccer: The men’s national team lost its chance to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. It’ll be the first time the U.S. failed to compete in the tournament since 1986.
The primal screams reverberated on social media and cable television. One of the best tirades came from ESPN analyst and former U.S. player Taylor Twellman, whose embarrassment and disgust were equalled only by his anger at mediocre expectations that have long considered subpar player and team performances superb.
As people quickly pointed out, the women’s team never had this luxury — and they won three World Cups. They haven’t received nearly the same financial investment from U.S. Soccer or comparable media coverage, and they managed to win four Olympic gold medals.
Oh, and until earlier this year, the women’s team had been waging a public campaign for equal pay, because despite their winning record they weren’t receiving the same paycheck or perks as the men’s side. That battle ended in April with a new contract the players described as “equitable.”
Critics of equal pay for women have argued that the men play against much more talented competitors and shouldn’t be expected to win against, say, Brazil or Spain, so we can’t really compare wins and losses — or pay — on both squads.
But the men’s performance on Tuesday night blew a huge hole in that argument. By losing to Trinidad and Tobago, a scrappy crew and the worst team in this qualifying round, they demonstrated that, in the words of soccer legend and ESPN commentator Julie Foudy, they simply were “not good enough.”
For those who, by default, see men’s sports as more professional, exciting, or ambitious, the loss is a wakeup call: masculinity can only take you so far when you lack heart, commitment, and determination. The players appeared to make excuses for a poor showing by complaining about a water-logged field the day before their match. Some, like Goalie Tim Howard and defender Omar Gonzalez, lived out their worst nightmares with an own-goal scenario that would make any casual sports fan cringe.
So when Twitter users despairingly pointed out that the United States wouldn’t be going to the World Cup for the first time in 30 years, others (including me) posted a gleeful asterisk: Actually, that stat applies only to the men.
While the U.S. women’s team hasn’t been playing to championship standards in the last year — getting knocked out of the 2016 Olympics and losing their own SheBelieves Cup in March — they’ve begun responding to those failures with resilience. They know that down years, when there’s not a World Cup or Olympics, are for overhauling the roster so a team is prepared to compete in the next round of qualifiers.
But they also know the work of convincing skeptics is never done. Though losses may raise questions about the intricacies of strategy and player development for both squads, most female athletes face additional pressure in the subtle or explicit belief that women just can’t compete for the same accolades and advertising dollars. A losing streak means having to again fight those stereotypes and expectations.
Maybe that knowledge turned the American female players into relentless underdogs long ago. The men, meanwhile, had comparatively very little to prove before Tuesday night. Fans thought they’d squeak through the World Cup qualifiers, make it to Russia, and turn in a decent, if not sometimes dazzling, performance. No one would expect them to reach the final match against an opponent like Brazil or Belgium.
The team’s shocking, history-making defeat, however, changed everything. Perhaps now the men’s team will finally come to terms with the fact that being just good or decent enough isn’t an option any longer. The U.S. women’s team has probably lived with this reality since fielding its first squad in the 1980s. Ever since then, they’ve always found a way to win — even in the wake of devastating losses.
You can’t teach or buy that kind of heart, but you can sure as hell reward it by becoming a loyal fan. So if you follow the men’s team but think watching women’s soccer won’t be satisfying enough, you’ve just run out of excuses.