There aren’t many ways to view the U.S. as an underdog in international competition, sporting or otherwise, and these American women were anything but. But the U.S. Women’s National Team had internal problems to solve, something to prove, and questions to answer.
And maybe for the first time, at least where public perception matters, those questions had nothing to do with gender.
The U.S. ended a 16-year World Cup drought Sunday in Vancouver with a 5-2 victory over Japan. For the generation of players who came of age after the ’99ers—Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, and the rest of the heroes of that breakthrough, sports bra-memorializing World Cup team—it was success in their final attempt at the title that had eluded them in three previous tries.
The victorious 1999 team remains iconic largely because of its place in the history of women’s sport—from Hamm’s dominance to Chastain’s cinematic, shirt shedding moment that launched women’s soccer onto the front page of papers. But the longer this tournament went on, the more the gender of this 2015 team seemed beside the point.
If possible, for one, it felt like the team—and whole sport—one-upped FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, whose disgraced and not-quite-deposed leader, Sepp Blatter, wouldn’t make the trip to North America for the tournament for reasons strongly implied and outright stated. (He told reporters before the tournament he didn’t want to be a distraction.)
It may well take the U.S. Department of Justice to defeat FIFA in any meaningful way, but given its insistence on playing the tournament on artificial turf—an affront it would never dream of enforcing for a major men’s competition, and which players led by U.S. team captain Abby Wambach tried and ultimately failed to change in the run-up to the tournament—a U.S. win felt like a solid middle finger to Blatter and his cronies.
For members of the 2011 team, the win avenged a brutal loss to Japan on penalties in the 2011 final. And for this group of women, it answered questions they, themselves, looked like they might not be good enough to answer just a few weeks ago.
No one answered more loudly than Carli Lloyd. The 32-year-old midfielder, who scored the game-winning goals in the team’s 2008 and 2012 Olympic goal-medal victories, scored three in a dizzying 15-minute opening burst that saw the U.S. take a 4-0 lead. Japan eventually settled and made it as close as 4-2 early in the second half before a fifth U.S. goal moments later reclaimed momentum and all but sealed the outcome.
None of the five U.S. goals came from Wambach, the 35-year-old battering ram forward who, for better and worse, had been the team’s most identifiable player for more than a decade. It was mostly for the better, of course—Wambach’s 184 international goals are the most for anyone, ever—but as the Americans slowed more and more in recent years, a team whose offense was built predictably around her physical dominance and target play seemed increasingly unsure how to score.
It didn’t help that the presence of Wambach and other vets meant that some of the program’s most promising talent struggled to get on the field.
When the U.S stumbled through the tournament’s group stage, scoring just four goals in three games and looking like anything but a serious title contender, questions about the veterans holding the team back grew louder by the day.
Coach Jill Ellis wouldn’t acknowledge the skeptics, but in tweaking the lineup—most notably, in benching Wambach midway through the tourney—she showed she knew her team wasn’t playing up to its potential. Now, of course, there’s no denying the changes worked, and if Sunday night’s five-goal outburst against a very strong opponent was slightly fluky, it also felt earned—and due.
It’s early to be predicting legacies, but perhaps these 2015 World Cup champions will be remembered not as a great women’s soccer team, but as an all-time great team of any stripe. They were undeniable champions, and they finished with appropriate fireworks.