There is a refrain that I have been using in this tournament: teams are icebergs. We get maybe 10%, if that, from observing them. The other 90% is a mystery; not known to us, nor meant for us. And so it’s frustrating that yet again, a thread of criticism has started to unravel around the U.S. women’s national team, essentially, being too happy.
After the U.S. held on to a scoreless draw to squeak past Portugal and into the round of 16 as the second-place team in the group — a position they hadn’t been in since 2011 — FOX Sports cameras cut to players dancing, smiling and taking pictures with fans. In the postgame coverage Carli Lloyd, a two-time World Cup winner herself, was quick to criticize the players.
“I’m just seeing these images for the first time right now, at the desk,” Lloyd said. “I have never witnessed something like that. There’s a difference between being respectful of the fans and saying hello to your family, but to be dancing? To be smiling? … You’re lucky to not be going home right now.”
Carli Lloyd’s USWNT criticism a natural extension of her public persona
The public and social media debate was instant and vociferous. On Thursday in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, USWNT captain Lindsey Horan addressed what she called “noise.”
“For me, I always want to defend my team and say like, ‘You have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes, you have no idea every single training, what we’re doing individually, collectively, etcetera,’” Horan said. “So for anyone to question our mentality hurts a little bit, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t really care. It’s (about) what’s going on inside of here.”
There are two primary assumptions going on with the outside commentary. First, that the players actually are happy. One would certainly hope they are — they’re at a World Cup, the pinnacle of any soccer player’s career. And second, that there’s something wrong with being happy even if everything isn’t exactly going to plan.
This is not a new phenomenon; finding something to dislike about the way players are handling a tournament is an old refrain for this team. We’ve gone from worrying that they’re celebrating too much during their 13-0 win over Thailand in 2019 to asking why the players are smiling and dancing and implying they’re being too soft with each other’s feelings, that there isn’t enough grim Trunchbullian motivation in that camp. Don’t the players know how close they came to elimination?
Every single U.S. player who went through the mixed zone after their 0-0 draw against Portugal was clearly aware of the situation.
“We know that we can be better,” said Crystal Dunn. “It’s not like everyone’s sitting there like, ‘Wow, that was the most amazing performance put together.”
“We need to play better and we know that,” said Megan Rapinoe.
Alex Morgan, team co-captain, missed multiple shots late in the game and was quick to say she needed to do better.
“We expect so much of ourselves,” Morgan said. “We hold the high standard and we wanted to go through first in the group, but this World Cup is crazy. Every World Cup is crazy, but this one especially.”
Defender Kelley O’Hara, who came on in the last minute of second-half stoppage time, perhaps summed up her feelings on the issue best with a long, aggravated sigh when asked what she thought the team needed to do to spark a better performance in knockouts.
“Just have to do a couple of Kumbayas and we’ll be good,” she said sarcastically, possibly referencing a remark from Fox Soccer’s commentary team about the U.S. singing “Kumbaya” while being a team that is struggling and not going into the round of 16 with confidence.
The players might talk about being in a bubble, walled off from things like pundits and social media, but they know. They’re not unaware that they are at the most high-profile event of their profession or that they didn’t score on Portugal or that it’s now the number one talking point about the team.
“It is kind of frustrating for me to hear, especially knowing this team and how much we put into every single game,” Horan said. “How much preparation we put into every single game. Seeing our training, seeing how hard we work. In this game you can’t question that we didn’t want to win the game. You can’t question we weren’t working as hard as we possibly could. We know we could have done better.”
No player at the World Cup is walking around unaware of the group standings. And no player or coach is going to fully give away what is going on within camp. Reporters might get to go to open practice, but after the first 15 minutes, everyone gets kicked out so the team can prepare in earnest. Why, then, would anyone assume that what we see is representative of the total picture?
Not only are practices a momentary glimpse, no one is privy to team meetings with and without coaching staff, strategy sessions, recovery, private conversations between players, calls to family members, sessions with team psychs or the hours of downtime. We don’t know if they’re actually having a chill time in camp or if players are sobbing in their rooms, nor are we entitled to know any of that.
Not even the people who used to be on the team know. They have their own valid experiences, true. But personnel change, dynamics change, and players know better than anyone that the people commenting from the outside can only guess at the feelings inside.
Criticizing players for appearing to be having a good time also implies the corollary: would it make you feel better to see them look miserable? Do you want them to look like they’ve just had to take the beaches of Normandy? If so, why?
When U.S. midfielder Rose Lavelle spoke to the media the day before the Netherlands game, she said, “I think watching the World Cup is always really fun.” Head coach Vlatko Andonovski said that team mealtimes are usually scheduled such that at least one other game is on. It was a reminder that players don’t usually go into soccer because they want to live out years of misery and dour, grim grind for its own sake. They do it because they love it, and to begrudge the players the parts of this job that make them love it is churlish at best and cruel at worst.
“We want this so badly that sometimes I think we lose track of why we started to play and why we’re here,” forward Lynn Williams said. “It’s because we love the game and we love absolutely playing and we love these moments on the world stage.
“That’s why we’ve put our bodies through so much and sacrificed so much. And I think that it’s a lot of people’s first tournament, mine included, so you just want to go out there and perform so badly that sometimes you forget about all the joy and the reason why you started.”
Motivation isn’t the problem either.
“If you have to get up for quarterfinal match work or a knockout round match in a World Cup, you know, I don’t think anybody needs that kind of motivation,” Rapinoe said after the Portugal game, also addressing questions about how to get everyone looking sharper.
“I think there (were) things that we could do better from the last couple of games,” she said. “But like, I’m not gonna dwell on it. It is what it is.”
That ability to turn the page and look forward instead of back has always been a crucial component of tournament mentality. So if the criticism is the players aren’t upset enough, then consider that there are many ways to motivate, and negative emotion isn’t always the answer.
In an interview with SB Nation, two players who have also been there, Christen Press and Tobin Heath, laughed that they were even bothering to do commentary on games because they both knew from experience that external opinions were ultimately so much noise.
“Nobody cares,” Heath told SBN. “It’s so funny because we’re all here giving our opinions and think we matter…. Honestly, it’s the biggest BS that anybody notices because all these players are fully focused on getting the job done.”
After that Portugal game, first-time World Cup player Trinity Rodman lingered on the field. She signed autographs and took selfies long after the rest of the stadium had emptied out.
These were some of the only photos I sent in last night immediately because of how wonderful and special it felt. She truly did her best to get every single person a selfie or autograph and didn’t want a single fan to be disregarded, especially the Rodman fans at the end. https://t.co/wQp46Bt5yE
— Nikita (@kryptobanana) August 2, 2023
If the lasting image of that game against Portugal is instead Rodman trying to make it a special moment for every single fan who had come so far to support the team, and maybe feel some positivity herself, then perhaps that’s a lesson everyone watching can internalize that playing a game and joy should go hand in hand.
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(Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)