The United States may no longer be its old hegemonic self in the realm of geopolitics. But in this World Cup, the women’s national soccer team has seemed like a juggernaut from the time of Pax Americana—a team with supreme self-confidence and an almost evangelical sense of mission. There have been moments, these past few weeks, when their swagger has veered towards arrogance. In their second match, the team started seven fresh players, resting its brand names. And in the aftermath of the replacements’ commanding victory, defender Ali Krieger quipped, “We have the best team and the second best team in the world.”
But an arrogant team would be unable to appreciate its own weakness, and tonight the team made self-aware tactical adjustments to compensate for its inferior component parts. Put differently, this team is brimming with idealism—it is, after all, a squad in pursuit of equality, as well as a title—but to beat France, the host nation and its near equal, it reverted to an uncharacteristic pragmatism.
In the first four games of the tournament, the U.S. team imposed itself on the game, possessing the ball for higher percentages of the game than any other in the tournament. No matter the opponent, the U.S. had refused to vary its way of playing. It has kept right on relentlessly attacking, mustering the same offensive resources against the minnows from Thailand as it did against powerful Sweden.
France, however, was another matter. Over the last few years, the French have troubled the Americans, beating them last year and tying them in an exhibition match a few months back. France has overwhelming pace on its wings and technical wizards in the middle of the park. Members of the team play in well-financed professional clubs that are in the process of matching, and perhaps exceeding, the quality of their U.S. counterparts.
One of the most incredible qualities of this American team is its capacity to catapult itself out of the tunnel. The team starts games with unnerving intensity. I can’t remember any squad that scores so consistently in the opening minutes of games. Tonight, it only took five minutes for Megan Rapinoe to scythe a free kick into the near corner of the French goal, a characteristic combination of her power and her ability to manipulate the ball to perfectly follow the geometric designs she draws in her head.
This wasn’t the most majestic game that U.S. has played, and that was the tactical plan. Coach Jill Ellis noticed that France, for all its pace and skill, has struggled to pick apart congested defenses. As the game progressed, Ellis compressed her team’s defense deep in its own end, clogging the goal box. The central midfielder Julie Ertz melted into the backline, providing a fifth defender. Rapinoe and her fellow winger Tobin Heath largely abandoned any pretense of pushing forward into attack. The United States broke from character—instead of attacking, they parked themselves in front of the goal and absorbed the pressure from France. This looked helter skelter at moments—and they had patches where they failed to string together passes that would allow them to escape France’s assault—but the French had relatively few opportunities to score for all the time they spent controlling the game.
So, the United States progresses to a semifinal match with England. I find myself more wrapped up in this team than any World Cup squad I can remember. In part, it’s the unmistakable sense of camaraderie they possess—and how the team’s success is inseparable from its sense of moral purpose. On the eve of the tournament, these players banded together to sue their employer, the U.S. Soccer Federation. Over the course of a tournament this long, there are usually moments of frustration, when a pass is misdirected or when a player selfishly shots on goal. But I have not seen a single moment of that. They win because they have so much camaraderie and coherence—and they have that because they joined together to take such a big political risk.
A World Cup is a unique experience in sport. Teams remain in a foreign country for many weeks. They live, eat, and train together, as if at summer camp. Because a World Cup is rare, the tournament yields insane pressure, and none have been more pressure-filled than this one. No women’s team has ever repeated a World Cup—as the U.S. is poised to do—and certainly no team has prevailed while its co-captain rhetorically jousts with its president and the squad battles its boss for equal pay. This team has flourished in the face of all this, and actually seems intent on milking the experience for all the pleasures it can provide. A day after Donald Trump denounced her, Megan Rapinoe played perhaps her best game in the American jersey. This is history in the making, folks. The movie version won’t be nearly so good.