FIFA Women's World Cup Opinion Piece: USWNT Blows Out Thailand 13-0 in Opening Match
The USWNT beat Thailand in their opening group match game 13-0. Which...apparently some people have a problem with??
Let's put this in perspective.
The USWNT is good.
The USWNT is good. They're reeeeeeeally good. Like, they're the best team on the elite international scene in women's soccer. They're the favorite to win the tournament, and they are the most successful team on the international level with three Women's World Cup titles, four Olympic gold medals, eight CONCACAF Gold Cups, and ten Algarve Cups. The only time the USWNT has NOT medaled was when they were knocked out of the quarterfinals in the 2016 Summer Olympics. If you want to pick a team who has had decades of the highest achievement of excellence, the USWNT is your pick.
(Side note: For the record, the US Men's National Team didn't even make it to the FIFA World Cup last year, despite significantly greater investment and pay-outs for lesser performances.)
So okay, the USWNT is really really good.
On the other hand, the Thai women's team made their first Women's World Cup appearance in 2015 when the tournament was expanded from 16 teams to 24 teams. (Also a side note: the Thai men's team has never appeared in a FIFA World Cup tournament, despite receiving significantly more funding and support.)
While the Thai women's team is a relative newcomer to the elite tournament scene, they are a powerhouse in Southeast Asia. In 2018 they had runaway international victories such as their 13-0 win over Indonesia and 11-0 win over Cambodia in friendly matches and AFF Women's Championship match-ups. The Thai women know how to compete and win in their region. The Thai women (NOT the Thai men) are now expanding their level of excellence by competing at the elite tournament level, and there's no better way to test your mettle than by going up against the best of the best - that is, the USWNT.
As in so much of life, as you increase your level of excellence, you will, in fact, face an increased level of competition. Harder tournament? Harder opponent. Make all the parallels in real life that you'd like, but there's beauty in the simplicity of working your way up the ranks and facing greater challenges.
Higher level leagues and tournaments mean higher level of competition
Don't believe me? Fine. Most soccer around the world is organized by leagues. You move up and down leagues based on your past performance, with the level of competition increasing as you move up. You see this in youth soccer as kids move up to the next age group and play against older, bigger, more experienced, more physical, and more competitive kids. Yeah, it's hard to face a big loss against someone who's just competing at a whole different level, but you know what? You spend that next year rising to the challenge. And guess what? That first time a little kid faces blowout competition is not equivalent to a professional women's soccer team facing blowout competition. I guarantee you all of the women (including the US women) have faced a blowout game, dealt with their emotions, and gone on to other greatness. Stop infantilizing these women.
Lopsided competition is regularly seen in professional leagues as teams move up to more competitive leagues, such as in men's English football. In the English football system there's an assortment of amateur and regional leagues, then the National League, English Football Leagues Two and One, and the Champions League. The very best teams compete in the Premier League, with teams being regularly promoted and relegated (demoted) between Premier, Champions, and Football leagues based on performance in competition. Some teams maintain a level of excellence and have never been relegated from the Premier League - Arsenal, Liverpool, ManU (ugh), Everton, Tottenham, and Chelsea for examples. Other teams are true Cinderella stories, such as AFC Bournemouth which spent most of their long club history bouncing around in the third and fourth tier of the leagues and were almost dissolved in 2008 before some pivotal changes rocketed them to the Premier League. (Oh Bournemouth, your underdog story will always hold a place in my heart <3) However, most teams that jump between leagues experience drastically different win-loss records because the level of competition is so different. For example, the champions of the Champions League may show up the next year to the Premier League and...well...get their butts kicked. Next level of competition, next level of opponent, next level of excellence.
But here's a secret: that competition is GOOD FOR YOU. You know how people say cliche things like "adversity builds character"? Well...there's some truth in the cliche. You can only achieve a certain level of greatness in a vacuum: at some point you have to be challenged to rise to the next level.
Most people don't show up to play the most competitive team in the world with delusions of grandeur. You wouldn't take your rec league pick-up basketball team to play against the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s and expect a cakewalk. However, you might bring your minor league basketball champions to play against the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s though and get really psyched up for a learning experience. They're gonna be good, they're going to play hard, but how will YOU rise to that challenge? Sometimes in matches we see Cinderella stories as a team overcomes insurmountable odds to beat the Goliath team. Sometimes in matches you get blown out 13-0. Either way, you show up and that's added experience to your performance. The Thai women's team doesn't play just one game in their lifetime. They are creating a habit of excellence, and to create that habit of excellence you sometimes have to compete at the next level of performance. The Thai team rose to the challenge in 2015, they are rising to that challenge in 2019, and they will continue to rise to the challenge as they play against more competitive teams and continue to gain experience and competitive edge.
Losing is not the same as failure
"But why did the USWNT have to blow them out 13-0?" Well, why did the Thais blow out Indonesia 13-0 in a "FRIENDLY" match in 2018? Why did Germany beat Ivory Coast 10-0 in the 2015 Women's World Cup group stage? Why did the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Miami Heat by 68 points in 1991? Why did the New England Patriots beat the Tennessee Titans 59-0 in 2009? Why did the Texas Rangers beat the Baltimore Orioles 30-3 in 2007? Because it's competition. You show up and you compete. Sometimes you have bad performances, and sometimes you play against a great team and you learn from that experience.
So why are you criticizing the USWNT for still applying pressure? Or, better yet, why are you considering a blowout game a mistake? There is a poisonous attitude that failure is a bad thing. Failure is a learning experience; you show up, you fail, you learn from your mistakes, you grow, and then the next time you show up you perform better. Stop shaming failure as something to be avoided to the point that we implement pity parties. Ask the Thai women if they're ashamed that they showed up and played hard against one of the best teams in the world regardless of what the scoreboard says.
These goals are still personal successes for individual (especially debut) players
And why are you trying to take away from the successes of the novice teammates on the USWNT? The USWNT had some major names retire in recent years, which means young new talent are appearing in their first FIFA World Cup tournaments. If you spent your entire life working towards the moment of your first World Cup goal, don't you think you'd celebrate it regardless of the circumstances? Mallory Pugh scored the USWNT's 11th goal, but that was her first ever FIFA World Cup appearance. For her it was a personal milestone. Heck yeah, Mal, celebrate that milestone! And for the other players it was a major confidence builder. How many times have I agonized over watching Alex Morgan just not sink the ball into the goal or sync up with her teammates? Having a strong showing at the opening game sets the tone for the rest of the tournament. We should let them celebrate success. Carli Lloyd, who is an MVP veteran on the team and Ballon d’Or winner from 2015, scored the final USWNT goal in injury time. And while it would appear to the outsider that this is just another feather in Lloyd’s illustrious cap, the truth is that this was a critical achievement for Lloyd, who throughout her career has been wildly inconsistent and has even struggled to the point where she’s been cut from teams. Carli Lloyd needs confidence-building moments, and a strong showing in the opening match with a goal from Lloyd is such a confidence-building moment.
There’s more at stake than pride and goal differentials to encourage players to play well
"But why couldn't they just kick the ball around and not run the goals up so much?" First of all, goal differentials are the first level of tie-breaker in the tournament. Besides Thailand, the USWNT was in Group F with Sweden and Chile. You think the USWNT is hot stuff in women's soccer? Sweden is hot on their heels with an impressive history and Pia Sundhage as their manager (until August 2018 when she semi-retired to coach the U-17 Sweden team). You know, the same Pia Sundhage that coached the USWNT from 2007 to 2012. And Chile is no joke! This may be their first FIFA Women's World Cup appearance, but they were close to qualifying three times prior. While they shouldn't be a major threat, in this tournament where goal differentials and seeding matter, you don't leave something to chance.
But also too, besides playing at elite competition and raising the bar of excellence, besides celebrating personal milestones, besides using failure as opportunity for growth instead of assigning shame, and besides the great unknowns of the future, there's the bare principle that if you show up to a game, you should play with heart and make the game worthwhile. Even if that means a blowout win. Case in point: In high school my one-A division team (smallest/lowest division that competed in the charter and private school league) competed against a team in Orange County. We BLEW them out of the water the first time we played them. The next time we played them, we felt bad about it so we just kicked the ball around and we didn’t try. This disparity built frustration on both sides; we were bored and the other team was angry that even when we didn’t bother playing they still couldn’t gain traction. There were hard fouls and hard feelings. It was a junk game. And, as I’ve discovered, you should never play a junk game. It does nothing for either side; why bother just showing up to work or play? Why bother being apathetic or pitiable? Why bother if you’re not going to work hard, even if the playing ground is uneven? That evening our team got a serious come-to-Jesus moment with our coach who reminded us that we were playing for US, not for anyone else. We were playing to our own level of excellence every time we stepped on the field, and that day we failed that level of excellence. It was a hard lesson to learn, but it was an important one.
So what’s the real root of the problem?
So here’s an idea: how about instead of criticizing the USWNT for being so excellent, we criticize FIFA for not fostering women’s soccer development programs like they should? It’s not the USWNT’s fault for setting the standard of excellence and achieving it year after year after year - even when the competition was nowhere close to the USWNT’s level of performance. How about instead of giving $400 million to the men’s winning team and only $30 million to the women’s winning team you funnel some of that cash into soccer development programs? How about you investigate FIFA’s long-standing history of corruption and broken cashflow? How about we stop padding greedy pockets and we elevate women’s athletic performances so that every team has the resources to support the highest level of achievement? How about instead of having some wealthy Thai heiress fund the Thai national team so they can focus on training we can make sure professional players can be - well, professional. We need to stop the cycle of thinking women athletes have to work a normal 9-5 job and then train for their professional sport. We do this to women’s soccer, women’s running, women’s basketball, and so many other sports. If you want to see all the teams perform at excellence though, then set them up with the resources and investments to support that high level of excellence. Don’t expect one team to dumb down their performance just because you won’t support the other teams in achieving higher performance. GET ON OUR LEVEL.