WELLINGTON, New Zealand — The Women’s World Cup’s longtime mentality monsters spent an hour on the ropes here Thursday.
They wavered and waffled in the Wellington wind, trailing the Netherlands and maybe, just maybe, wondering. Their audience certainly wondered. It wondered whether these U.S. women were as powerful as their predecessors; it asked the same question that Dutch coach Andries Jonker asked 24 hours earlier: “What is left of their superiority?”
It asked about talent and tactics, but more so about auras and psychology. It wondered how the USWNT would respond to going behind in a World Cup game for the first time in 4,400 days, since a 2011 quarterfinal, when Sophia Smith and Trinity Rodman were 10 and 9 years old.
And the answer, on a momentous afternoon at the Wellington Regional Stadium, in a 1-1 draw, was what it always is.
This USWNT is flawed and injured; its pipeline is fractured; but its brains are as strong as ever.
They powered through a shaky first half and into an irresistible ascendency as the second half wore on. For 45 minutes, they’d drifted in and out of the game, losing touch with it, allowing the Netherlands to dictate it. But after halftime, they roared back, got a goal and hunted for a second — and answered one gargantuan question.
No, their physical fitness and technical skill are no longer miles clear of their European challengers.
But yes, this evolving collection of players, headlined by a new generation of stars, with six World Cup debutants in the starting 11, is still the USWNT.
The U.S. program’s legacy, solidified over three dominant decades, has been three-pronged. It’s been built on talent, off-field advocacy and on-field mentality. The former is clearly waning relative to peers. The activism never will. The mental piece, entering this month, was unclear; it’s often passed from one generation to the next; but it was capable of being lost in translation from millennials to Gen Z, from the Alex Morgans and Megan Rapinoes to the Rodmans and Smiths.
The kids had never faced a moment like Thursday’s. The most analogous matches had ended inauspiciously. The U.S. had played four games against elite European teams since the 2021 Olympics, after which the roster began to evolve; it had trailed in all four of those games, and lost three of them. It hadn’t coped well with the Wembley Stadium stage in a high-profile friendly against England — though there were extenuating circumstances. More importantly, it simply hadn’t confronted many high-stakes games against high-quality foes.
Which is why Thursday was a massive occasion, especially when the Dutch came prepared.
“It’s tough going down a goal to a really, really good team,” Smith said. “But, we didn’t let that take over our whole momentum and attitude.”
“I think the fact that this team fought back is a little bit of that mentality that we needed,” Morgan said.
She later added: “I think it’s just an important piece to this journey that both the veterans and new players kinda needed.”
It was a game and a day we’ll look back on a month from now, one way or the other. It exposed flaws, namely at the base of the U.S. midfield, flaws that gave the Dutch their goal and could be the reason that the U.S. ultimately falters. But it was also a necessary test.
“I think we’re actually really fortunate to have a pretty tough group,” Smith said. “It’s gonna be hard to get the results we want; but that’s what we want. Because we know, as soon as we make it out, it’s gonna get harder.”
Hidden within her answer was the same unshakable confidence that the USWNT has always brandished. It is assumed, by players themselves, that they will make it out of the group, even though a loss to Portugal next week would eliminate them — just like it was assumed that they would win the 2019 World Cup when they were declining White House invitations before the tournament even began.
That 2019 team was the USWNT at its peak: uber-talented, but tactically unsophisticated, but badass and fearless and feared.
This 2023 team, on the other hand, is not yet feared. It seems less formidable. Its badassery has been questioned.
But Thursday proved that nothing has been lost in translation. “The resilience and relentlessness that this team has is sometimes crazy,” U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski raved. Lindsey Horan, a World Cup newbie four years ago, learned it from Rapinoe et. al., and pulled it out of her ever-growing bag in Wellington. “And it was good to see that, right in front of these younger players, because it rubs off,” Andonovski explained. “And then you can see [them] pretty much picking up the mentality, the belief, and [being] able to make a difference.”
You could see it in fullback mily Fox, 25; in center back Naomi Girma, 23; and in the attacking waves that nearly drowned the Netherlands over the final 20 minutes. Once the U.S. equalized, the Dutch never had a hope of recouping the lead.
In the end, it wasn’t an American win; but medium-term, it was something more beneficial, a response from the ropes, an experience to draw on come the knockout rounds.
“It’s huge,” Andonovski said. “It’s huge. And it’s one thing to have an experienced team and to do that. But it’s a lot bigger with a younger team like this.”
When asked whether the team will be better off for it, Horan didn’t hesitate: “100 percent.”