Top dog meets underdog in opening match-up: US v. Vietnam
The US ladies arrived dressed like douchebags, stepping off the bus in matching custom double-breasted suits, the product of a collaboration between London-based menswear designer Martine Rose and Nike. Accessories included yellow-tinted shield-style sunglasses (frameless, the size of safety goggles) and shoes that hybridize square-toed dress mules and Nike Shox sneakers, also designed by Martine Rose. Other countries’ teams showed up to the World Cup in matching sweatpants.
Vietnam is the lowest seed in the tournament; its roster includes one professional soccer player—Huynh Nhu, who plays for a Portuguese club. The rest of the squad plays for soccer clubs in Vietnam, where the women’s game isn’t professionalized. Vietnam’s objective going into the match on July 22 was to not lose by thirteen goals like Thailand did when they were the bottom seed against the US in the 2019 Women’s World Cup. Vietnam played the whole game tightly marking through the entire midfield, a physically exhausting and punkishly amateurish strategy, and only lost by three. The highlight of the match was when the Vietnamese keeper Trần Thị Kim Thanh stopped star US forward Alex Morgan’s penalty kick.
Both types of soccer players are good. Men are good in a runny, underdetermined way: their value to society is clear by the way they are watched, worshiped, and paid, but there’s insufficient evidence that they deserve what they have. (Lionel Messi recently transcended sport by turning down a $1.3 billion contract offer from Saudi Arabia to play for some more reasonable but still unjustifiably large sum from Miami.) Women are also good, but in a responsible, wet-cement way, where “any action, big or small, has an impact on the elevation of women’s sports.” (That’s according to the chief marketing and public relations officer for Ally Bank, sponsor of the National Women’s Soccer League.)
I keep asking myself what does it mean, to me, that these are women on my TV and not men. I experience jolts of happiness when the players look with open indignation at the ref. I also like it when the close-up cameras happen to catch them spitting or mouthing curses or, best of all, looking entirely mentally absent, in the moments before taking a corner or free kick, the slackness in their face testifying to their personhood. Also, this tournament has a wide variety of excellent ponytails.
Alex Morgan stars in a mock perfume ad where she runs around on a beach wearing her full Nike kit: “Effortless.”
A vintage-cartoonified Megan Rapinoe appears, in another Nike ad, as an ’80s-era superhero with flatly defined muscles who rides a motorcycle and fights rock ‘em sock ‘em–esque robots.
Sophia Smith is the star of a third Nike spot where she plays a mashup of the monster from Smile and It Follows, tormenting some fictionalized opponent.
Alyssa Thompson, the US team’s youngest player at 18 years old, demonstrates that you can pop the trunk of a new Volkswagen with your foot.
Retired star midfielder Carli Lloyd appears in Geico’s ads, which take place in the suburbs, and feature women’s soccer players as incongruous lawn ornaments entertaining middle-aged women drinking lemonade on outdoor furniture.
Finally, an ad for Ally Bank opens with a close-up shot of a young woman in an athletic jersey, rolling out her neck like she’s about to do something physically and spiritually demanding—then we zoom out and see her sitting at the foot of a girlishly comfortable bed, preparing to scroll through Instagram videos of athletes who are members of Team Ally (these include US Women’s National Team players, collegiate women’s lacrosse and basketball players, and Billie Jean King). In the end, the clips are inspiring enough to make the young woman put down her phone and roll out of bed.
Before every game, the starting lineup of each team is shown one by one, standing against a translucent, lightly patterned backdrop, projected over a bird’s eye view of the field. There are three options. You can step forward and cross your arms; you can step forward and pinch the fabric of your jersey next to the national crest; or you can step forward and clasp your hands behind your back. Some of the most intimate and human images from this World Cup are of players who step forward and do nothing with their arms, not understanding or remembering that they must until it’s too late, their hands jerking urgently up in front of them just before the image cuts.
The group stage matches have been beautiful and educational. Spain’s spongy and accomplished offball structure contained Japan in their defensive third for the overwhelming majority of the game, but Japan won 4-0 anyway, by scoring almost every time they crossed midfield. Colombia upset Germany 2-1, fair and square, and South Korea later sent the Germans home. The host nation, Australia, started slow, having lost three offensive players to injury right before the tournament, but figured it out on the fly, knocking out Canada to advance. Jamaica’s team, who are called the Reggae Girlz and are competing in their second World Cup ever—thanks to a GoFundMe campaign, because their federation hasn’t paid them yet—also advanced to the round of 16, eliminating Brazil in the process. After that game, Jamaica’s Bunny Shaw hugged and thanked Brazil’s Marta, the best women’s player of all time (Marta will retire without a World Cup title). Marta hugged, thanked, and complimented her back, looking honored and cool in a lime green scrunchie.
Go, Fight, Tie
On July 26, the US played the Netherlands in their second group stage match. American captain Lindsey Horan and Dutch captain Daniëlle van de Donk, who are friends from club soccer, fell into shoving and trash talking after van de Donk drove her shoulder smoothly through Horan’s ribs. The ref, a gentle parent, tried to make them apologize to one another. Both seemed to refuse, then Horan immediately scored a telegenic header off a corner kick to tie the game, for a final score of 1-1. Afterwards, Horan embraced a smiling van de Donk and shrugged her way through a cocky post-game interview: hey, listen, Daniëlle poked the bear. The real fight started when Carli Lloyd, a former US teammate of Horan’s who has since become a commentator, questioned why it should take some petty friend-from-club-soccer drama to make Horan want to not lose a World Cup game. Horan responded by inviting people who have no clue what they’re talking about to stop talking. The US continued to underperform, finishing 0-0 in their final group stage game against Portugal. (Portugal almost won the game on a breakaway, bouncing a hard shot off the near goalpost with 8 minutes left on the clock; Lloyd named the goalpost Player of the Match.)
The predictability of the US’s trajectory didn’t make it any less wretched to watch. The US advanced to play Sweden. After 120 scoreless minutes, the game went to penalty kicks, and then sudden death penalty kicks. Sweden won in the second round of sudden death, making this the earliest World Cup elimination in US Women’s National Team history. One American player sobbed like a child; another looked as if something inside of her snapped, laughing desperately as a teammate wrapped her up in a hug. A third stared with tender, hollow intensity at the ground, breathing down the front of her grass-stained jersey while ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” cranked over the stadium sound system in celebration of the Swedes.
In the postgame coverage, Horan and Lloyd finally agreed on something, each independently making the same point: that the 23-year-old center back Naomi Girma, who joined the US team last year, played like the bright future of the program. Girma is a supremely unfussy genius: when the ball comes near her, she wins it, controls it, and passes it cleanly to a teammate. If the US offense had managed to score, odds are good the play would have started with her.