With No Argument on Substance, Critics Take Aim at U.S.’s Style

LYON, France — There was just enough edge in Ellen White’s voice to suggest she meant it. It was only a few minutes after the United States had eliminated White’s England team from the World Cup, though that is too simple a description of what she was going through.

She was still trying to process all that had happened, everything that had transpired in the previous two hours: the goal that was, and then was not; the penalty that appeared from nowhere and then went back the same way. White’s eyes were still rimmed red; her breath was still short. She kept worrying that she was going to cry, again.

Journalists are not (always) monsters. There had been enough questions asking her to go through all of her emotions, to list them so that our descriptions might be more accurate, to describe in great detail what had happened on the field. A kindly soul decided a more positive note might help.

There was still plenty to play for, she was told — a sympathizing statement dressed up as an inquiry. She could, after all, still leave France with the golden boot awarded to the tournament’s leading scorer; she was even with the United States’ Alex Morgan, and had a third-place match in which to add to her tally. White looked down. “Yeah,” she said, ruefully. “I’d quite like to take that off them.”

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It has not been hard, these last few weeks in France, to find admiration for the United States women’s soccer team. Phil Neville, the England coach, admitted after his team’s defeat in the semifinals that he saw the United States as “the best” there is. His side’s aspiration, he said, was to reach the same level.

Corinne Diacre, the France coach, said that “playing the U.S.A. in the quarterfinal is not exactly a gift.” Several of the Dutch players who will face Coach Jill Ellis’s team in the final on Sunday described it as a “dream” to share a field with them. The Americans’ vanquished opponents from around the world, from Thailand and Chile and Sweden and Spain, all have said something similar: The United States’ women’s soccer program is a team, and perhaps a concept, that inspires something not far off awe.

Admiration is one thing; as White rather neatly demonstrated, affection is quite another. Scarcely a week has gone by without the Americans transgressing some theoretical, and often invisible, boundary; there has been little outright hostility, but over the last month it has been impossible not to notice an undercurrent of something approaching opprobrium, a sense that while the United States must be praised for winning, it can be condemned for not winning, somehow, in the right way.

It started, of course, with that rampage against Thailand, a team of world champions running up the score against a group of semiprofessionals, celebrating each and every one of their 13 goals with something approaching delirium. Some indistinct border of decency had been crossed, it was decided, even if the team had no idea whatsoever what the problem could possibly be.

A few days later, Ellis’s decision to rotate nearly her entire side against Chile was interpreted as an act rooted in presumption, an impression cemented when defender Ali Krieger declared afterward that the United States had not only the best team in the world, but the second-best, too.

The knockout stages brought yet more focus on how the players chose to celebrate. Piers Morgan’s objections to Megan Rapinoe’s striking a pose after scoring against France can probably be written off as a transparent attempt to ingratiate himself with President Trump. The response to Morgan’s tea-sipping celebration against England might easily be seen as confected outrage, that most valuable of currencies in the modern news media climate.

In between those two incidents, though, the English news media took exception to the news that the United States had scouted out the hotel England was using before the semifinal as a possible base for the final: the sort of forward-planning that pretty much every team in the world would undertake, but interpreted as yet more proof of the unthinking arrogance of the U.S. (Such was the paranoia, at that point, that a further minor storm brewed when it was briefly thought that the Americans had sent someone to spy on an England training session; it turned out — thankfully, for the sake of moral decency — that it was just a confused passer-by).

Individually, all of these incidents fall somewhere on the border between trivial and laughable. Taken together, though, they indicate a pattern; their frequency suggests a trend toward the policing of the behavior — and particularly the joy — of the American players. There is no question that this United States team is revered for its efficacy, its talent, its history; nobody would deny its claim to be the best in the world. It does not, though, seem to be especially well-liked.

Morgan, when asked to explain her celebration against England, offered a compelling explanation for why that might be: that women, unlike men, are expected to restrain themselves in celebration, in particular, to maintain a standard foisted upon them by others. “There is some sort of double standard for females in sports,” she said. They are encouraged “to feel like we have to be humble in our successes; we have to celebrate, but not too much; we have to do something, but in a limited fashion.” Such self-containment, she said, is not asked of men.

She is doubtless right to suggest that women’s behavior is monitored far more than men’s, but it is worth noting that it is only American women who have been criticized for going too far in their moments of euphoria in this tournament. Nobody has suggested White or Sam Kerr or Vivianne Miedema might like to tone it down. Kerr was broadly praised, indeed, for her bluntness in telling off her critics after Australia defeated Brazil in the group stage. That indicates that nationality, as well as gender, is a relevant factor in the censure.

It is not satisfactory, either, to put it down to the Americans’ penchant for preplanned celebrations. Choreographed routines are not, it is fair to say, universally popular — it is a personal view that they feel too contrived to be genuine expressions of joy — but, again, non-American players with trademark routines, like White and her goggles, have gone largely unremarked.

What, then, might be at the root of it? Morgan also suggested that female athletes are expected to greet their triumphs demurely, diffidently, in a way that would not be expected of men.

That is not, though, this American team’s style, and nor should it be. Morgan and her teammates regard themselves — with abundant supporting evidence — as the best in the world. That they are willing to say so publicly speaks volumes not only of the standards they expect of themselves, but of their awareness that they are role models as much as athletes. They have a platform for empowerment, and do not intend to be discouraged from using it.

By the same token, though, it is perhaps understandable that opposing players, and opposing fans, might not especially appreciate finding themselves in the audience for a display of American greatness. This United States is the dominant force in women’s soccer, and has been for a decade or more; it has the air of a dynasty about it, an overweening, immutable empire. That comes with the inevitable consequence that rivals and challengers and usurpers tend to want to see it fall, to take pleasure in its perceived failings, to start to feel resentment alongside their reverence.

Perhaps, then, there is a compliment hidden in the criticism: If it is only the manner of the American victories that people can take issue with, some nebulous sense of a line being crossed, then that is proof of the scale of their dominance. Or perhaps not; perhaps it is cultural, that old trope of Europeans defining their own refinement through the prism of American brashness.

Either way, one thing has become increasingly clear over the last month in France. This United States team does not, when it comes down to it, care what other people think of it. It is here to win games, to claim a prize, to conquer the world. Whether it makes friends along the way is secondary. It is not in the business of inspiring affection. It is here to inspire awe, and it has done that rather nicely.

Rory Smith is the chief soccer correspondent, based in Manchester, England. He covers all aspects of European soccer and has reported from three World Cups, the Olympics, and numerous European tournaments. @RorySmith

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