USWNT game a celebration of World Cup victory, off-field accomplishments

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Twenty years after one of the most iconic, watershed moments in women’s sports history, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team playing in St. Paul is about more than the game.

Roughly three-quarters of the current World Cup roster, born between 1982 and 1998, would have been old enough to have the same exhilarating memories of that 1999 team, the program’s second World Cup win after the inaugural 1991 tournament, and the summer that followed. They, like other Millennial women, were captivated by the athletes as children and teens, filled with optimism about their own future in sports and life.

We heard the names of Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy, and Brandi Chastain, watched weeks of celebrations on cable news, the reporters swarmed by fans in red, white and blue, along with the replays, and of course the sports bra. We didn’t realize at the time what we were witnessing, or even what Title IX was, but we saw the patriotism and support. Even as young girls with an opaque understanding of our role in society and how to navigate through it, it felt like a moment the scales were balanced in our favor. 

What we know now is, that while the 1999 World Cup was transcendent, it didn’t signal the end of the fight for equality. Following in the footsteps of the #MeToo movement, this team said “enough.” This past March, players sued their own governing body, the United States Soccer Federation, on the basis of sex discrimination. Their resume and their excellence became too undeniable to ignore, they argued, so they got louder.

That’s why, when the team took the field against Portugal at Allianz Field as part of its “victory tour” their appeal went beyond their entertainment on the pitch. Women athletes are propped up as role models for kids but it’s Millennial women, who share their same experiences following their careers, who look up to them.

“I love it. I personally love it,” Kari Dahlen, a recent law school graduate, said of the team’s outspokenness about equality. “I think it empowers a lot of women the way they’re standing up for women in general in sports, really trying to fight for equal pay.”

“I think of them as role models to me,” Anna Tucker, Dahlen’s friend and fellow recent law school graduate, said. “Even though I know they probably help a lot of younger girls, too, I think they’re really role models for everyone speaking out for women’s equality and ‘let’s treat women fairly’ especially in sports. I think that’s a really great thing to see and it can be empowering to people of any age.” 

What the team has experienced is all too familiar to women. Online trolls are one thing, but the team is an example of how no matter how much you prove you’re astronomically talented and qualified, someone will try to knock you down. Take Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer who called the calls for equal pay “ridiculous,” and people who continue to make dubious arguments about revenue and TV ratings.

In the face of that, though, they’ve set an example by the way they continue to excel, have fun and keep proving their own worth.

“I think everybody is kind of taking part in different things within the group,” captain Carli Lloyd said. “Some feel strongly about certain things. I think collectively our voice is so powerful. We’re changing lives. We’re changing the conversation. We’re changing the culture. It’s really, really special to be a part of and I think that we want to try to make a difference. Every single one of us, we want to inspire. We want to break barriers, and continue to make the next generation have things a little bit easier coming their way. That’s what we’re fighting for and it’s great to be a part of this team.”

Tuesday was billed as a celebration of their World Cup win. But it was also a celebration of their entire body work and their achievements, as it should be.