For people who casually follow the US Women's National Soccer Team, a lot of the media coverage surrounding this World Cup might be fairly shocking—or at the very least, completely unlike everything they're used to. Instead of puff pieces about soccer moms and glowing tributes to exceptional American athletes, we've gotten a storm of handwringing about whether this team is even functional anymore, let alone actually good.
Then there's the character controversies. From Hope Solo's arrest to Abby Wambach's soundoffs in the media, two of the biggest names used by US Soccer to drive fan interest have lost some of their shine. I'm not trying to equate an arrest to running your mouth too much, but instead pointing out that the era when athletes were smiling faces with ponytails and generic opinions is either dying or dead at this point. And we should happy about that.
The problem with putting players up on a pedestal is that it limits viewpoints and doesn't allow for any of them to be real, actual human beings with faults and flaws like everyone else. Expecting them to always be role models in every aspect of their lives, public or private, is an untenable situation that makes it that much harder when one tumbles off that pedestal. There's no room to examine what really makes them tick, what they fear, what holds them back, what drives their successes. There's definitely no room to examine the deeper facets of the team, from coaching decisions to tactical execution on the field.
Pedestals limit narratives, which is how you get a million stories marveling that Christie Rampone has lived for four decades in a row and pushed two other human beings out of her body yet still continues to function at an elite level. (Just google "Christie Rampone" + "soccer mom" and you'll see.) Which is not to say that her feat isn't awesome—pushing human beings out of your body and keeping them alive is, last I checked, fairly exhausting and eminently worthwhile—but that has often been the only story about Rampone used since the 90s.
As a longtime stalwart of the program surely she has opinions about the history of women's soccer in America, the evolution of the sport, the growing pains of professional club play, how she'd like to see more women involved in the game, the differences she sees in rosters, the change in her role from captain to bench player, how coaches compare across the decades, the threats other teams pose to the U.S. after playing catch up—you get the picture.
So now media coverage of the USWNT is changing, and a lot if it is fairly negative at this point in time. The U.S. is struggling their way through the World Cup and there are a lot of questions about why Jill Ellis' XIs can't quite seem to put the ball in the net. People are talking about this team of players purely in a technical sense, discussing them in terms of what is happening on the field during the game.
There are actual statistics out there now. Numbers and analysis are entering the conversation. We don't have to fill in spaces with mindless repeated conversation about what a player's favorite meal is. FIFA has basic stats and Opta has even deeper numbers, which gives you great articles like this one about Abby Wambach's effectiveness. There's been a shift away from celebrating wins without asking what went into them towards breaking down elements step by step, promoting what was good, and questioning what was bad. Quite frankly, that is awesome.
So yes, a lot of criticism is following this team. Criticism and support are not mutually exclusive—in fact they go hand in hand. Anyone rooting for the United States who is willing to dismiss the glaring technical errors present in their game does this program a great disservice.
For too long now the USWNT has been grinding along, pushing their way to wins in spite of themselves. Their workarounds can only function for so long before someone exposes them for how faulty they are—perhaps France, perhaps Germany, perhaps Japan. Perhaps even Canada or Australia. But sooner or later, some country that has taken the time and care to evolve is going to stymie our forwards, tear apart our midfield, and push through our defensive wall. Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston aren't perfect—please put down your pitchforks—and Hope Solo is eventually going to start slipping as she passes her prime. We can't count on an insanely good defense forever.
It's time. The modern era of women's soccer has begun. Time to stop accepting "Just enjoy the win, bro." Time to start questioning the parts we can clearly see aren't working. If you truly support this team, encourage questions about why our forwards aren't getting good service and why our midfield can't communicate or hold the ball. Ask why formations that demand wide play devolve into a narrow mess. Ask why players who could fit well into problem areas are riding the pine. Hard questions are the frontrunners for change, and change is necessary not just to stay alive but to thrive and grow. Growing up hurts, but it's a hell of a lot better than staying stuck as a child forever.