Fair Play: The USWNT And the World Cup Blowout

Fair Play: The USWNT And the World Cup Blowout

We head into the second weekend of the Women’s World Cup, and the second group stage games are under way.  One of the most notable stories of the tournament so far was the utter dismantling of Thailand by the US.  It’s not only the 13-0 scoreline—the most lopsided in WWC history—that has critics of the US fired up, but the manner in which the team comported themselves in the process.

I decided to sit a couple days on this one.  I wanted to ruminate on my feelings, which seem to be ever in flux when it comes to this game.  On one hand, this is the World Cup.  There may be times that you pump the brakes a bit when playing a significantly inferior opponents, but the flagship tournament of your sport isn’t that moment.  On the other hand, it was tough watching a team so completely out of their depth while my own team celebrated over and over.

In fact, I didn’t even get to watch the whole game due to a prior engagement.  I had to leave around the 75th minute, when the score was already an absurd 8-0.  I certainly at the time wasn’t expecting the team to add another five goals; those five alone would be tied for the next biggest blowout in the tournament. At the point I left, there was still the jubilation of watching the US play in top form without yet reaching the creeping embarrassment of realizing we were casting ourselves as the bullies for the rest of the World Cup.

But the question is did the US go too far?  My initial reaction was no.  It’s not the US team’s job to play down to their opponent.  But I wanted to take a look at other people’s arguments, compare them to my own feelings, and see what I found compelling and what didn’t move me.  And keep in mind that these are just general themes I’ve noticed when reading reactions online, and shouldn’t be applied to anyone specifically.  Nor should these be considered comprehensive.  The opinions out there on this subject are vast and varied.  So let’s dig in.

Bad arguments that the US went too far:

The first is the public perception.  We do kind of look like the bad guys.  We are the bullies in this tournament, and we not only knocked over Thailand, but then kicked them when they were down.  I’m not moved by this argument because I didn’t see the US do anything particularly cruel or mean-spirited.  They didn’t foul aggressively, or brag directly at Thai players.  They just played to their ability and celebrated when they scored.

One of the other arguments, which I think is somewhat tied to the last one, is that we, as an imperialist state, are taking advantage of people with lesser opportunity.  This is a really complex take that demands a much more nuanced and thoughtful discussion than i’m willing to go into here.  Suffice it to say that while this argument absolutely not without merit, I think it’s expecting a bit much from a soccer team to have to deal with the entire historical and political context of their nation’s history when taking the pitch.

Good arguments that the US went too far.

From everything I’ve read, there are not many people that are arguing that the US should’ve scored less.  It wasn’t the final scoreline that was the problem so much as the celebrations.  Sure we can be excited when we go up by 3 or 4 goals, but once you’ve hit double digits, it gets a little unsporting to jump and scream about each extra tally.  Perhaps a bit more of a sober self-congratulations is in order in these situations.

The other argument (and this one I’ll link to a specific article - Link:http://backlinesoccer.com/uswnt-beat-thailand-13-0-i-was-there-it-felt-gross ), is that there was no reason for Jill Ellis to sub on three attackers when the game was so out of reach.  I understand that Carli Lloyd is upset to be on the bench.  I understand that you want to get Mallory Pugh out to get some minutes.  This, however, might not have been the right moment.  While I don’t think the team necessarily had to just play possession ball in their own half to kill the clock for the final 30 minutes, perhaps putting on a former FIFA Player of the Year and 2015 World Cup Golden Boot Winner on when the game was 7-0 is stepping on the neck of the opponent a bit much.

Bad Arguments for going for the kill:

One of the constant go-to arguments I hear about why the team needed to play full steam is because goal differential matters.  That’s stupid.  Yes, goal differential is a tie-breaker in this tournament, but is it at all conceivable that having a +7 goal differential after one game might not be enough to ensure the US’s advancement from the group?  Of course not.  The fact is that any goal differential over +5 is likely to be enough to guarantee the US the advantage should a tiebreaker scenario come up.  While this argument might be technically correct (Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hou0lU8WMgo ), it’s not actually a good argument.

Another argument I’ve seen a bit—which is best best summed up in this piece (Link: https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/columnist/nancy-armour/2019/06/11/world-cup-us-women-did-what-necessary-blowing-out-thailand/1425464001/?fbclid=IwAR3DSnWAHXKYhrS1UznCcSUgeaYIGejYjhVAzv1pMvSYF02s_yYz-bGy3ps )—is the don’t-be-a-pansy argument.  This isn’t an argument so much as a mass-dismissal of anybody who might find the result distasteful. Let me make it clear, if you’re ever telling someone who disagrees with you to, “join the 6-year-olds in the park [and] get a participation trophy and an orange slice while you're at it,” you’re the asshole.

The other one that doesn’t carry a lot of weight with me is the argument—explicitly stated by Coach Ellis—that you wouldn’t criticize the men if they scored this much.  While I don’t want to dismiss the inherent sexism built into the perception of the women’s team compared to the men’s, I don’t think it applies here.  I think if the men’s team had a similar result, there would be just as much argument on both sides as to whether or not it was unsporting.  Of course, given the current results we’re seeing the men’s team achieve, it feels like it’ll be a long time before we’ll get a real chance for comparison.  But if you look at other sports, there were plenty of times men’s teams were criticized for running up the score.  Whether it’s a college football team only running the ball for the second half of a blowout, or an NBA team sitting its starters for the 4th Quarter of a game that’s out of reach, men’s teams regularly play more conservatively when they have a big lead.  I can’t be the only one who remembers the backlash directed at Bill Belichick for going for it on 4th-and-2 when the Pats were up 45-0 against Washington in 2007 (okay, to be fair, I may be the only one who remembers that - Link: https://www.espn.com/nfl/columns/story?columnist=clayton_john&id=3084539 ).  The point is that while men’s teams aren’t universally criticized for going all-out on their opponents, they’re not universally congratulated for it either.

Good arguments for going for the kill:

One of the main reasons why I think it’s fine that the US played full steam the entire game is that nobody on the Thai team was asking for them to play anything less than their best soccer (Link: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/12/world/asia/thailand-world-cup-soccer.html ).  It would be patronizing for the US to play at a lower level when Thailand couldn’t keep up.  I imagine it similar to a mom playing soccer with her daughter letting in a goal or two or not running as fast as she can because she wants to build her daughter’s confidence.  For a mom teaching her daughter that would be understandable and even laudable.  To do that to another team in the World Cup, though, is condescending.

Also, I think it’s important to remember the context that different players have when they celebrate.  Perhaps it seems uncouth for the US Women’s Team to be celebrating after scoring so many goals.  The key detail that gets lost is that the women’s team is made up of players, and they have different reasons to celebrate.  Samantha Mewis, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle, and Mallory Pugh all made their World Cup debuts, and scored.  I can’t imagine in that moment it makes the slightest difference what the scoreline is when it comes to celebrating.  Megan Rapinoe (who has always been exuberant in her celebrations Link: https://images.app.goo.gl/EdL8faJ1SybyzJxD7 ), has been fighting injuries and age, and was having a particularly tough game.  And let’s not miss the fact that Alex Morgan, who was fighting injuries in 2015 and only scored once in that tournament, scored enough goals in this game alone to earn herself the Golden Boot in all but two of the past tournaments.  Every single one of those moments is worth celebrating, and if they happened over three games, nobody would question them.

And finally, as I said at the top of this piece, this is the World Cup.  Players train their entire careers hoping for the chance to play this tournament.  This is the single most important title in the sport.  If this were a friendly, perhaps we might expect a little more restraint from our team (though perhaps Thailand wouldn’t expect that considering the time they thrashed Indonesia 13-0 in a friendly in 2018 Link: https://edayfm.com/video/uS4mJcTT8Rc/ ).  But at the World Cup, teams should play to their top level.  Thailand isn’t in the World Cup by accident, they qualified.  The US is the best team in the world, and it’s up to the teams playing them to change that.  Not them.

In short, I’m okay with the way the US played.  That doesn’t mean I don’t understand why some people aren’t entirely comfortable with the result.  I think the joy I feel is somewhat tempered.  It’s not fun to have your team absolutely destroyed on such a public stage, and I’m empathetic to the way Thai fans must’ve felt watching the game.  I can’t help, however, reveling in the optimism as I look forward to the rest of the tournament with high hopes for the US Women’s team.

Dave Brouillette and his wife Carol cohost Hands Free Football, a podcast that looks at MLS and the sport of soccer from a bit of a philosophical perspective. You can listen to their show on the Apple Podcast app, Stitcher, Player FM, or atwww.handsfreefootball.com.  And follow them on twitter @HandsFreeFooty.

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