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Under Pressure

Pressure is nothing new to the US Women’s Soccer Team, in all its different formations and line-ups. Generally speaking, that pressure has been about winning a World Cup Final, which it’s done four times including the past two tournaments in 2015 and 2019. More broadly, they’ve carried the burden of lifting the women’s game both in the US and across the globe, which includes growing the challenging business of women’s pro soccer in North America. And more recently, they’ve been at the center of the debate of pay equity in international soccer, a construct that extends far beyond the pitch.

That said, members of this year’s US National Team may be feeling pressure like never before. That’s because three games in to this year’s World Cup, the Americans barely passed through the group stage to advance to the knockout stage, the 16-team single elimination tournament that will determine this year’s champion. Half of the original 32 squads move forward by finishing in the top two of their group of four, something the US team barely did by finishing second to the Netherlands and coming one crossbar away from being eliminated by Portugal. Their only win out of three games came against an overmatched Vietnam, and soccer experts have critiqued everything from the crispness of their passing to poor coaching to taking selfies with fans after a lackluster performance. And now they enter the win or go home phase facing an uphill battle against Sweden and likely Japan, two squads who have thus far outplayed the Americans.

Clearly, the US Women’s Team has been held to a far higher standard than their male counterpart, for whom making the knockout stage is a win unto itself. For the American women, the bar has been set very high – perhaps like the American Men’s Basketball Team, or the Dream Team, where even second place is first loser. Also like men’s basketball, the women’s soccer game continues to grow and improve across the world, normalizing what used to be a reliable talent disparity. So regardless of what you think of this year’s performance by the US, things were going to get tighter either way. Which also means that you could view the American struggle thus far a sign of progress more than a disappointment. Cynics would say watch what you wish for.

But before everyone gives up on the US Women’s Soccer team, there’s a few important issues to address – some that go far beyond the game. First, remember that even though the US underperformed and finished second in their flight, they are still in the next round. And while past performance may be an omen, they wouldn’t be the first team to have a lousy patch before going on to win a title. A whole lot of college basketball teams lose their conference tournament before winning March Madness. So don’t let the future be too traumatized by the present. Second, as much as American soccer fans may bemoan this lack of dominance, honestly, seeing close and competitive soccer is way better than watching a foregone conclusion. As cool as the 92 Dream Team was with all its star power, in terms of watching basketball, it stunk. So we shouldn’t be angry that we’re not watching blowout soccer – which is basically anything over 1-0. We should be happy the games are exciting.

And finally, if the Americans do in fact lose, we’ll learn a lot about the state of American sports fandom. Generally speaking, interest in women’s sport is on a gradual but consistent upswing. This cuts across sports, including soccer, tennis, basketball, golf, and so on. Some of that comes from the success of teams like the American Women’s Soccer Team. But a lot of it comes from far greater societal and industry trends, things that are bringing new fans to sport and bringing new sports to fans. Which means that we might learn a bit more about who’s a fan of women’s soccer – and willing to support victory and defeat, and who’s simply a fan of America. By the way, the same goes for lots of men’s sports. I mean, do you think that many people actually liked watching swimming? So even if the women’s team does lose and fans dissipate, it’s really just part of the uneven road of progress.

Then again, the Americans could stand up to the pressure and surprise everyone and win the whole thing. Because pressure is nothing new to US Women’s Soccer.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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