Premium: Protect the Players
European champion England beat the World Cup champion USWNT 2-1 at a sold-out Wembley at the end of a heavy week in the wake of the Yates Report on systemic abuse in the NWSL.
LONDON — Decked out in a light brown New York Yankees cap and wearing a smirk that would have made her father, Dennis, proud, Trinity Rodman didn’t worm out of answering my question: I thought you had a good goal. Did you?
In real time it looked glorious: a sweeping finish at speed from the 20-year-old Rodman, a budding star, after a piercing run by Sophia Smith and a backheel—or was it a dummy?—from Megan Rapinoe that appeared to bring the World Cup champion U.S. to a 2-2 tie with European champion England and silence a sold-out Wembley Stadium in their heavyweight friendly on Friday.
“Yeah,” Rodman told me, adding that she had gone “straight to the phone” after the game to see the replay. “I thought it was a great goal and a great buildup. I mean, the whole team was involved in transition. It’s obviously unfortunate, just because you look back at it and we still don’t believe it’s offside. It was extremely close.”
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Or as Rapinoe put it: “Not sure that second goal was offside, and the pictures look a little sus.”
If this had been, say, next year’s World Cup final, there would have been a massive postgame debate consuming even Skip Bayless’s show about the use of telemetry cameras in VAR offside calls to nullify the kind of thrilling goals that are the hardest thing to create in this sport—all because of what may have been a two-inch offside that’s unseeable to the naked eye. Even England, which has deployed VAR worse than any other major soccer country, has pulled back from hairline VAR offside calls in the Premier League this season, and nobody has complained a bit.
For what it’s worth, if this game had taken place in the U.S., where we’ve been too cheap to install VAR telemetry cameras and the fans don’t want them anyway, Rodman’s goal would have stood and the match would have been deadlocked at 2-2 in a frenetic first half that also included an Alana Cook misplay that led to England’s opener, a pinpoint equalizer from deputized center-forward Smith and a Georgia Stanway spot kick after Hailie Mace’s penalty (thanks again, VAR).
But truth be told, there wasn’t much indignation from the U.S. side after the 2-1 loss—the team’s first since the 2021 Olympic semifinal defeat to Canada—in part because it was a friendly, and in part because of the context surrounding the game, both in the days leading up to it and in the final unifying moments before kickoff.
So often over the years, the players of the USWNT have had to shoulder the burden of speaking about heavy and complex off-the-field topics—player abuse, equal pay, sexist U.S. Soccer legal strategies, the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade—at the same time they have been playing the most high-profile games of their careers.
Who can forget Rapinoe’s tour de force a press conference the day before the U.S.’s 2019 World Cup quarterfinal against France? Not only did she speak on the team’s equal-pay fight (which it eventually won) and respond to bullying criticism from President Trump, which she did with aplomb, but she also went out the next day and scored two goals as the U.S. blew the doors off the tournament’s host. In equal measure, Rapinoe won the debate and pointed to the scoreboard. It has become the USWNT way.
After the release on Monday of the independent investigation into systemic abuse in the NWSL by former Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates (which everyone should read, being aware that the contents are truly awful), the women of the USWNT once again rose to the occasion with their words—not just Rapinoe but also her teammates, including Cook, Becky Sauerbrunn, Crystal Dunn and Lindsey Horan.
Sauerbrunn, the 15-year national team veteran, set the tone by speaking first among the players on Tuesday, beginning with an appreciation for the victims who shared their stories with Yates and continuing with her thoughts on the players inside the national team. “The players are not doing well,” Sauerbrunn said. “We are horrified and heartbroken and frustrated and exhausted and really, really angry. We are angry that it took a third-party investigation. We are angry that it took an article in The Athletic and The Washington Post and numerous others. We’re angry that it took over 200 people sharing their trauma to get to this point right now. And we’re angry that it took Mana [Shim] and Sinead [Farrelly] and Erin [Simon] and Kaiya [McCullough] and Alex [Morgan] and Christen [Press] and Sam [Johnson] to repeatedly ask people in authority to take their abuse and their concerns seriously.
“And I think for so long, this has always fallen on the players to demand change,” Sauerbrunn continued. “And that is because the people in authority and decision-making positions have repeatedly failed to protect us, and they have failed to hold themselves and each other accountable. What and who are you actually protecting? And what values are you upholding? You have failed in your stewardship. And it’s my opinion that every owner and executive and U.S. Soccer official who has repeatedly failed the players and failed to protect the players, who have hidden behind legalities, and have not participated fully in these investigations, should be gone.”
Rapinoe, too, called for the ouster of NWSL owners Merritt Paulson of the Portland Thorns and Arnim Whisler of the Chicago Red Stars, whom the report confirmed had enabled their abusive former coaches Paul Riley and Rory Dames. Paulson removed himself from Thorns-related decisions this week, while Whisler was voted off the Red Stars board, but both remained as owners of their teams.
“I don’t think that Merritt Paulson is fit to be the owner of that team,” Rapinoe said on Thursday. “I don’t think Arnim is fit to be the owner of Chicago. We need to see those people gone so people who are fit and who will take care of the game and respect the game and help the game grow the best way possible can replace them.”
A separate joint investigation report by the NWSL and NWSLPA is expected in the coming months that will likely bring to light additional information about systemic abuse, and there are lingering questions from the Yates Report about enabling behaviors by U.S. Soccer officials, including former USWNT coach Jill Ellis, former president Sunil Gulati and former CEO Dan Flynn.
In the days before Friday’s game, the U.S. and England players discussed how they might unify to make a statement at Wembley. Their decision: to wear teal armbands in solidarity with sexual violence survivors and stand together at midfield behind a banner reading PROTECT THE PLAYERS.
As Sauerbrunn put it, “It was really us talking with the FA and seeing what they were willing to do, and they were absolutely great. The Lionesses in the interviews that they’ve given saying they’re in full solidarity with us means a lot. We know that it’s not just a women’s soccer in America thing. Women are being abused everywhere.”
“Both teams coming together was amazing,” Rapinoe said. “Without the players, you don’t have anything. You don’t have a game. You don’t have a sport at all. So if we’re not protected in the right ways, then nothing else really matters. So for us to come together and take a moment on a night like this I think is really important and powerful.”
Even though the U.S. has won the last two World Cups, it’s obvious that the team has work to do on the field in the months before next year’s tournament in Australia and New Zealand. The midfield isn’t performing like it was during the heydays of Julie Ertz and Sam Mewis, and there needs to be more strength and solidity next to Andi Sullivan, perhaps in a double pivot. England bossed the midfield on Friday, not least because Keira Walsh continued the dominant controlling play she showed during the Euros.
Despite being 22, Naomi Girma looks more and more like a lock to start in the U.S. central defense, but the role of her partner could be played by any of Cook, Sauerbrunn or Tierna Davidson. Looming over everything in the attack is the eventual return from ACL surgery of Catarina Macario and how that will impact the front line—perhaps moving Alex Morgan (who is also sidelined right now with an injury) to the bench with Smith and Mal Pugh playing out wide and Rapinoe in a supersub role that fits her better at this stage of her national team career.
These are all soccer topics, and important ones. But you can also be sure that the USWNT players will continue speaking up in the coming days and weeks about weighty off-the-field matters. Tuesday’s friendly at Spain will bring support from the U.S. for a Spanish team missing 15 of its top players, who are refusing to play for national team coach Jorge Vilda, citing his overly-controlling actions and lack of tactical acumen. The Spanish federation has dug in its heels and refused to engage with the 15 players, continuing the theme of officials in power throwing up their hands at genuine player concerns.
When the next abuse report from the NWSL/NWSLPA comes out, the USWNT players will speak out then as well. But maybe in 2023 things will finally start to change a bit. At a Future of Women’s Football event at the Soho Hotel here on Friday morning, USWNT players union executive director Becca Roux was asked what she’s hoping for in the year ahead.
Her response: “Maybe 2023 I’ll say is the year they get to just be footballers.”
Imagine that. It’s something they have earned.