The story sounded like one Alex Morgan might tell around a campfire.
Back in the day, 34-year-old Morgan likes to start, when players like her needed to find their way to their soccer matches, they used something called MapQuest. It wasn’t an app on your smartphone, the kind with a reassuring voice announcing every turn and flashing a digital dot to show your location.
It was a website that created a map and list of turn-by-turn directions, Morgan said, which you had to print out on actual paper. Sometimes it fell to pre-teens like Morgan to read the turns while a parent was driving.
“This was a tough time,” US Defender Naomi Girma, 23, recalls telling Morgan after hearing the story recently, feigning sympathy. And she was like, ‘You don’t even know. “
Sports are often about gaps: talent gaps, experience gaps, compensation gaps. And in the weeks and months leading up to the Women’s World Cup that kicked off Thursday in Australia and New Zealand, the players on the US women’s national soccer team have found an unlikely bond in jokes, gossip and stories about what may be their most defining characteristic: a generation gap.
The oldest player on the team is Megan Rapinoe, 38, the famous player who recently announced that she will retire after this World Cup and the end of her current professional season. The youngest, 18-year-old Alyssa Thompson, just graduated from high school and still lives with her parents. At least three of Thompson’s teammates — Morgan, Crystal Dunn, and Julie Ertz — have children.
Thompson said her older teammates sometimes play music she doesn’t recognize, but different age groups find a middle ground with Cardi B. Sophia Smith, the 22-year-old frontman, said she identifies with the music, though the genre, not the artist. “They sound like what my parents listen to,” she said.
Smith admitted last month that she has never used a CD player and that she refuses to watch TV shows or movies if the video quality is “grainy”. One exception: the videos of the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final, a historic victory for the United States that led to the rapid growth of women’s soccer in America. Unlike some of her teammates, Smith doesn’t remember watching that team – she played the final over a year before she was born.
Others remember a different game – the 2015 World Cup final, Carli Lloyd’s stunning goal from midfield – as a pivotal moment for them. Four of their current teammates have more vivid memories of that afternoon, because they played in the match.
This generation gap, and how the US team handles it, will likely be one of the World Cup’s standout stories. But it’s also a symbol of the last pivotal moment in the evolution of the women’s game: a time of contentious debates over equal pay and human rights, battles for investment and demands for equal treatment with men. For the United States, a four-time World Cup winner, this tournament also represents a new, relentless challenge from rising competitors to live up to the Americans’ standard as leaders, speakers, and champions.
USA team captain Lindsey Horan is a veteran who won’t let young players forget that they had a role to play in that fight, and that winning matches and tournaments is of the essence.
“There’s always pressure in this team,” Horan, 29, said. “We live under pressure, and I think we’re making that known to any new, younger players coming into this environment that you’re going to live in for the rest of your career in this national team.”
Coach Vlatko Andonovski’s job was to build a smoothly running machine out of parts built in different eras. What makes the task more difficult for him this time around is that the players at his disposal have a wide range of experience. Fourteen members of the 23-man squad are World Cup juniors. Few slip into the roles of veterans who are now injured, retired, or facing their final matches. It’s Andonovsky’s first World Cup, too.
“I’m not worried about inexperience,” said Andonofsky. “In fact, I am excited about the energy and enthusiasm that the young players bring, and the strength and drive as well. In fact, I think that will be one of our advantages.”
Building chemistry among team members is not so easy, especially when time is running out. Even Cardi B’s regular doses can’t change that. The team’s recent record reflects its struggles under Andonovsky to include new players in the list of experienced players.
At the Tokyo Olympics—Andonovsky’s first major tournament as coach of the United States—the team finished a disappointing third. Canada beat the Americans to reach the final, and then won the gold medal. Just last fall, the United States endured its first three-game losing streak since 1993. One loss, to Germany, snapped a 71-game losing streak on American soil.
Finally, the rest of the world seems to be catching up.
Canada forward Janine Becky said there were two or three teams in the 2019 World Cup that were strong enough to win it. But now, only four years later, I estimate that six or seven should be considered serious contenders for the title.
“This is definitely the most open World Cup in history,” Becky said. “I’m really interested in how this young American team gets through this tournament. They can have a new mindset and recover quickly from game to game, or they can have players who are overwhelmed through the length of the tournament. Being there for a month from start to finish is really tough, especially when you’ve never experienced that before.”
This is why the older players on the US team try to prepare the newcomers for what to expect. So when they answered questions about what to pack for a month-long trip to the other side of the world — headphones, books, and a favorite pair of comfy sweatpants were the bare minimum — the older players also went out of their way to make the younger players feel as if they were on the team forever.
“The important thing is, how do we make the young players feel comfortable?” said Amelie Sonnett, who was a member of the 2019 Championships team and returned this month for her second World Cup finals. “Because if you are not amused, why are you here? And if you are not at ease, how are you going to play at your best?”
Players young and old have learned that leading by example can be contagious. Rapinoe, whose outspokenness has made her at times the public face of her team and her sport, said Team USA considers it “extremely important” to use its platform to “represent America and a sense of patriotism that turns that term on its head.”
For example, Rapinoe and others, including Morgan and injured captain Becky Sauerbrunn, have spoken out on social issues such as equal pay, sexual assault, LGBTQ rights, and racial equality.
Players on both sides of the generation gap said that veterans haven’t pushed younger players to get involved in the same issues. But many of the youngsters admitted they felt a sense of duty to keep this aspect of the team alive.
Girma said she was inspired by the national team’s activism to speak out on social justice issues while she was an undergraduate at Stanford. Shaken by the death of a college roommate there who killed herself, Germa and many of her contemporaries now use their voices to Highlighting the need for mental health awareness.
Forward Trinity Rodman, 21, said responsibility is one new players are beginning to embrace – “I’ve definitely tried to be more than a footballer”, she said – but every member of the squad has been united by a goal they all share.
“We want to win so badly, and we’re going to do everything we can to win,” Rodman said.
That way, one day, they’ll have their own campfire stories to tell.