What stood out, more than anything, was how normal it all seemed – and to be clear, I’m not thinking about the game itself, or at least not the first 16 minutes, when the United States Women’s National Team managed to score four times against Japan (three of those goals coming off the foot of a freshly minted New Jersey-born folk hero named Carli Lloyd) to essentially lock up the Women’s World Cup final shortly after it began on Sunday evening.
No, I’m thinking more about the way the narrative unfolded, the way it all felt so familiar, the way the U.S. team’s early efforts in this tournament were shrouded in skepticism, the way they had to weather scandal and controversy, the way they had to struggle against a barrage of negative headlines that felt disarmingly weighted with the great big A-word that tends to define virtually every championship team in America these days, whether true or not.
I am speaking, of course, of adversity, that great arc of struggle and triumph that has become such a commonplace cliché in American sports that the word has essentially lost its meaning. In a way, it was heartening to watch this U.S. team be cast in that same light (even by the professional narrative contrarians over at Slate), because it meant that women’s sports were no longer being sugarcoated or treated with kid gloves; it meant that, some 16 years since the U.S. last won a Women’s World Cup, things had changed to the point that the play itself mattered more than the statement.
“That [team, in 1999] was a cause, a passion,” April Heinrichs, a forward on the 1991 U.S. team and coach of the 2003 team, told The New York Times. “The players who were involved did the heavy lifting in promoting and marketing, along with the playing and educating. This era is about the technical and tactical aspects of a game that has evolved so far in 16 years.”
And what an evolution it turned out to be: A record-tying string of nearly 540 scoreless minutes for the U.S., led by that goalkeeper (Hope Solo, plagued by a domestic violence issue) who arguably shouldn’t have even been on the field in the first place. Add to that the benching of a legend, Abby Wambach, a decision that opened up the U.S. offense at crucial moments in the both the semifinal win over Germany and the barrage of goals that opened Sunday’s 5-2 win over Japan.
There was no Brandi Chastain moment of triumph, though the signature goal may have been Lloyd’s third of the first half, a lofted shot from midfield that took advantage of an out-of-position goalie and capped the greatest barrage of scoring in a World Cup final by anyone of either gender. And really, is there a better metaphor for this team’s frustrating inconsistencies and perplexing tendencies than Carli Lloyd, described by SB Nation, among others, as one of the weirdest and most confounding world-class players you’ll ever see? How fitting is it that Lloyd and Solo, flawed and controversial as they may have been in the lead-up to Sunday’s final, were the two stars of this tournament?
“We’re talking about them as athletes, rather than some of the conversations we had in ’99 – ‘My God, who are these women? They’re kind of hot!'” Julie Foudy, a midfielder on the 1999 U.S. team, told the Times.
This is the legacy of the 2015 Women’s World Cup champions. They were viewed and perceived (both from inside and outside) as athletes first, in all their flawed glory; they weathered the A-word and won a championship, and it all felt very modern, the smallest step forward for a sport that managed, on Sunday, to feel both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb