U.S. Women's Quest To Defend World Cup Title Is Only 1 Of The Team's Goals

Jun 7, 2019
Originally published on June 8, 2019 1:28 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Women's World Cup kicked off today with host country France defeating South Korea. Twenty-four teams are vying for the cup, and none is a stronger contender than the United States. The quest to defend their title is only one of the goals the U.S. team is driving toward, as NPR's Laurel Wamsley reports from Paris.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: Four years ago, the U.S. won the Women's World Cup, trouncing Japan on the strength of three goals by Carli Lloyd.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Lloyd, with Morgan streaking - she's chipping the goalkeeper, off the post and in. Hat trick for Lloyd.

WAMSLEY: That game, broadcast on Fox drew, more than 30 million viewers, shattering TV records for soccer in the United States - men's or women's. Now Lloyd is back playing in her fourth World Cup, and many on the team will play in their third, including Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe. The U.S. team is ranked No. 1 in the world and plays its first game on Tuesday against Thailand, followed by matches against Chile and Sweden. Though Thailand isn't a soccer power, Lloyd says in a major tournament like the World Cup, you have to focus on each game as it comes.

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CARLI LLOYD: We obviously want to get to the final. We want to win the final. But a lot can happen in between that. It's just kind of weathering the storm, winning, whether that's pretty, ugly, just finding a way to win.

WAMSLEY: This could be the strongest U.S. team ever, with an array of fierce goal-scoring attackers. But other teams have gotten stronger and more tactical, too. Germany, England and France could each win what many believe will be the most competitive Women's World Cup yet. Accordingly, U.S. coach Jill Ellis has tinkered with the team's roster in the last few years, moving players around, trying new ones and changing the team's formation. Ellis says she can considers the U.S. the team to beat.

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JILL ELLIS: Have to - you know, it's confidence. So much of it is a mindset and an approach. And there's a lot of good teams, and we're all aware of that. And - but we want to be the team to beat.

WAMSLEY: The U.S. team is making big moves off the field, too, demanding equal pay for equal work. In March, 28 members of the women's team sued U.S. Soccer - their employer - arguing that the federation discriminates against them on the basis of their sex by paying them less than the men's team. The team has also been critical of FIFA, the international governing body, which scheduled the Women's World Cup final on the same day as the finals of two of its other major international tournaments. And the prize money that FIFA distributes to the teams in the Women's World Cup is a fraction of what the men win for theirs.

Megan Rapinoe, the U.S. forward who is often outspoken on social issues, says FIFA has made some steps in the right direction in recent years, but that it's been far too slow given the organization's capacity for change.

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MEGAN RAPINOE: They have essentially unlimited resources. There's been such a lack of investment for all of these years and such a lack of care and attention that doubling or tripling or quadrupling investment, care, you know, attention to the women's game, I think, would be appropriate.

WAMSLEY: And it's not only the U.S. team that's frustrated. The best player in the world right now, Norwegian striker Ada Hegerberg, won't be playing in the tournament even though Norway qualified. She says the Norwegian Football Federation hasn't done enough to support the women's game, and she's refused to play for her national team since 2017.

Meanwhile, the U.S. team arrives in France without a few of its stars from four years ago. Hope Solo has been replaced by Alyssa Naeher in goal. And Abby Wambach, the sport's all-time leading international scorer, says she's grateful to be watching from the stands this year, having retired in 2015.

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ABBY WAMBACH: When you're in it, you talk about what an honor it is. You talk about how exciting and fun it is to play in the biggest tournament of your life. But now that I'm away from it, I can speak honestly. It's super stressful.

WAMSLEY: To win, Wambach says, so many things have to go right, and you need a little luck on your side, too. Laurel Wamsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.