Headed into the Women’s World Cup, the US women’s national soccer team (USWNT) was aiming to make history and become the first team — men or women — to win three consecutive world cups. That all came crashing down this weekend when the top-ranked US lost in penalty kicks to Sweden in the round of 16, the first of the competition’s four knockout rounds. The final will take place on August 20.
Given the expectations of excellence that the USWNT has set since the sport started to flourish on the international stage — four World Cup wins, four Olympic gold medals, and medaling in every major international competition except for the 2016 Olympics — it was no doubt a disappointment. This was the best team in the world trying to accomplish a feat that takes 12 years to achieve, as World Cups only happen every four years.
The US women’s loss was international news.
If you ask soccer experts, the loss wasn’t too surprising given the injuries key players sustained and questionable coaching decisions that were made. It was a transitional year for the US, with the team trying to find its identity among a mix of old-guard stars like 38-year-old Megan Rapinoe and new talent like 22-year-old Sophia Smith. Sports media and fans alike have already begun examining what went wrong, what little went right, and what the future of US women’s soccer is going to look like.
But the defeat has also become a talking point among a group of people who usually don’t have much to say about the sport: right-wingers, like former president Donald Trump and pundit Benny Johnson. In the wake of their defeat, USWNT has become subject to the claim that the US women lost because they were too woke and too progressive.
That couldn’t be further from the truth.
The right-wing concern about the women’s soccer team isn’t really about winning or losing or soccer
The game against Sweden kicked off at 5 am ET on Sunday, and the USWNT had lost on penalty kicks before most in their country had their first cup of coffee. The US team held even with Sweden during regulation, arguably playing one of the better matches of their tournament, while repeatedly being stymied by the Swedish goalkeeper. But they lost 5–4 on penalty shots after Rapinoe, Smith, and Kelly O’Hara missed their opportunities. As the day went on, a specific type of criticism began to circulate among right-wing personalities: The US women’s national team lost because they had gone “woke.”
In a politicized and misleading tweet, Benny Johnson wrote, “BREAKING: Woke US Women’s Soccer Humiliation ... After winning back-to-back World Cups the heavily favored Team USA has been ELIMINATED by Sweden in the 16th round. Team USA’s downfall was delivered by anti-America, anti-woman activist Megan Rapinoe’s EMBARRASSING free kick ...”
Leaving aside the several technical errors in Johnson’s tweet (the US lost in the Round of 16, not the 16th round — there is no 16th round of the World Cup; and the video Johnson attached showed Rapinoe missing a crucial penalty kick, not a “free kick”), its tone didn’t capture what actually happened Sunday. The US is the top-ranked women’s soccer team in the world, and Sweden is ranked third — a margin that’s slimmer than Johnson suggests. Based on how poorly the US played in its group stage (the round-robin format that precedes the one-and-done matches), Sweden was always going to be a tough match for the US.
Later in the day, freshly indicted former president Donald Trump weighed in on Truth Social, warning that the loss was a signal of the United States’s fiery descent into the underworld: “Many of our players were openly hostile to America - No other country behaved in such a manner, or even close. WOKE EQUALS FAILURE. Nice shot Megan, the USA is going to Hell!!! MAGA.”
The same kind of “woke = failure” rhetoric was implied in Fox commentator Alexi Lalas’s tweet about the game. (Fox happened to be the network broadcasting the Women’s World Cup.) Lalas wrote, “This USWNT is polarizing. Politics, causes, stances, & behavior have made this team unlikeable to a portion of America. This team has built its brand and has derived its power from being the best/winning. If that goes away they risk becoming irrelevant.”
Despite playing on the US men’s national soccer team, Lalas never came close to winning a World Cup. As his critics point out, in his own terms, this would make Lalas irrelevant. (Lalas has also previously tweeted support for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose politics run diametrically opposed to that of some prominent US women’s players.)
But what are these guys, however inaccurately, trying to talk about? The US women’s national team has supported a number of progressive causes, mainly LGBTQ rights and equal pay for women.
In 2016, the US women’s players began a legal battle demanding equal pay. They argued that despite winning major competitions and being the best team in the world, they did not receive the same pay and treatment (charter flights, hotels, facilities, etc.) as their male counterparts. The US men’s national soccer team hasn’t ever come close to winning any major international soccer competition, but still reaps much heartier financial rewards. The fight ended with a $24 million settlement in 2022, and a pledge from US Soccer to equalize pay.
Prominent members of the US women’s national team have also been staunch supporters of LGBTQ rights, a stance that puts them at odds with right-wing politicians and pundits who have embraced hostile viewpoints toward the queer and trans community. The team did not accept an invitation to visit the White House when it won the World Cup in 2019. “Your message is excluding people. You’re excluding me, you’re excluding people that look like me, you’re excluding people of color, you’re excluding Americans that maybe support you,” Rapinoe said in a 2019 televised interview, speaking to then-President Donald Trump.
In a competition earlier this year in Florida, where LGTBQ rights are under legislative attack, the team wore light blue, pink, and white wristbands in support of trans rights.
The political criticism the US women’s national team is facing isn’t unlike the rhetoric used in conservative boycotts against Budweiser following trans content creator Dylan Mulvaney’s sponsored content. That boycott isn’t unlike the Starbucks boycott that pops up year after year, or that time Tucker Carlson was mad at the gender expression of M&Ms. It’s also similar to the recent and extremely erroneous pronouncement that Greta Gerwig’s Barbie would make no money because it championed feminism and criticized the patriarchy. (Barbie is now poised to surpass $1 billion at the box office.) In the world of sports, stars like Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James have previously faced right-wing villainization for speaking out against police brutality.
The ideology is simple: if you show progressive values, you are destined to lose. Go woke, go broke. But it’s a crooked connection and has very little to do with how sports works.
This point of view fails to take into account that the women’s soccer team has been winning for a very long time, going back to the 2015 Women’s World Cup and even before then (the team has won four Women’s World Cups since 1991 and four Olympic gold medals since 1996). They’ve been fighting for equal pay and equal rights during their most impressive stretches of dominance in the sport. The US women have also been at the forefront of equal pay and treatment not just for US players, but for women’s soccer players across the globe. Spain and England, who are now considered favorites in the tournament, have equal pay structures among their men and women players.
Scapegoating the US women in this moment feels less like criticism of how they played and more like a political opportunity for right-wing politicians and politically adjacent figures to play to their base. Figures on the right who have been championing things like anti-trans legislation paint these women as political opponents, advance their own agendas, and grab some spotlight on what is an international news story.
Why the US women’s national soccer team really lost
The USWNT’s loss against Sweden wasn’t a huge surprise to anyone who’s been following the team over the last few months. This 2023 World Cup was always going to be a dogfight.
Headed into the tournament, the US team lost several key players to injuries, including talented scorer Mallory Swanson, defensive stalwart Becky Sauerbrunn, and star midfielders Sam Mewis and Catarina Macario. Those players are part of the reason the US is the top-ranked team in the world, but they were unable to start.
The US roster also included players who were injured and making their comebacks. Rose LaVelle, a standout in the midfield, injured her knee in April. The World Cup was her first tournament back. Similarly, Julie Ertz and Rapinoe were easing their way into competition after suffering injuries. While talented, these players weren’t playing at their peak.
The biggest criticism of the US team was against coach Vlatko Andonovski. Soccer insiders and experts posited that Andonovski didn’t pick a balanced roster, and further, his in-game decisions left many puzzled. As Kim McCauley pointed out in the Athletic, Andonovski’s tactics left the midfield vulnerable and disconnected, which in turn made the US offense a portrait of pure ugliness. “He wants to create overloads in wide areas and get numbers into the box so badly that he is willing to sacrifice having a midfield to do so. Personally, I think this sucks and leads to very bad soccer,” McCauley wrote.
At the same time, it’s important to note that teams and players around the world are getting better and better. Teams that are great on paper — like second-ranked Germany, seventh-ranked Canada, and eighth-ranked Brazil — failed to make it out of the group stage of the World Cup. The most impressive team of the tournament so far has been Japan, currently ranked 11th in the world. Women’s soccer is getting more competitive, and the US was never going to dominate the game as it once did.
While the US lost in an unfortunate way to third-ranked Sweden — literal millimeters on a partially saved penalty kick — a surging Japanese team would’ve been their next opponent. Based on how good Japan has been playing and how poorly the US has played, that would’ve been another tough match and likely would’ve ended in a loss too. If that had been the case, we’d likely have had the same kind of discussions about what went wrong for the team that we’re subjected to now. A depleted US roster, puzzling coaching decisions, and a gummy offense are all extremely valid criticisms of the best women’s soccer team in the world, but they’re far less exciting options if you’re trying to make a hollow political point.