If not for the heroic efforts of Chilean goalkeeper Christiane Endler, this might have been a soccer rout on par with the much talked-about Women’s World Cup opener against Thailand. But shot after shot Sunday in France, Endler was up to the task against the heavily-favored Americans, with multiple point-blank saves that will live in Christen Press’s nightmares, a kick save that will confound Lindsey Horan forever, and perhaps most impressively, a presence so intimidating it left Carli Lloyd with a rare mental mistake on a late-game penalty kick, shooting it wide of the post.
This one would finish 3-0 in favor of the United States, a rout by most soccer standards for sure, but no different than the score at halftime, with Lloyd scoring twice (a vicious half-volley strike and a header off a corner kick) and Julie Ertz once (another beautiful set piece conversion on a corner). Unlike that second-half explosion against Thailand, when the Americans piled on 10 more goals and unveiled 10 more celebrations, there was no such party Sunday.
Not for lack of trying.
Lloyd hit the post and she hit the crossbar. Jess McDonald hit the post. But mostly, the Americans hit Endler, who dived, twisted, contorted, and manipulated herself so ridiculously well she was named player of the match despite being on the losing side. If this game reminded us of anything vis-a-vis the 13-0 opening defeat of Thailand, it is this: Soccer goals are really hard to come by, and should never be taken for granted.
Does no rout mean no outrage?
And no worries.
Because if this women’s team — even more, this women’s national soccer program — has shown us anything over the last 20-plus years, it’s that they can handle a fight. From the famous ‘99ers, who two decades ago turned us onto the power and popularity of women’s sports in ways this country had never seen before, to the current crop of stars willing to put their names to the lawsuit for equal pay and gender equality in the national team program, these women hear your barbs and sling them away.
Not with ease, mind you, but with purpose, with pride, and with the overriding confidence that they will always understand this game, this fight, and their role at the intersection of those two, far better than the soccer-come-latelies who pop up every four years with scorn or derision. You know the type: Complaining about lack of goals one year and too many goals the next, who base fair-play arguments on youth-level understanding of substitution rules, who know nothing of goal differential in determining group standings.
So there was Lloyd on Sunday, offering little more than a polite golf clap after both of her goals, a celebration deeply intentional and thick with sarcasm. The team may be living in its European bubble while it aims to live up to its world No. 1, World Cup favorite status, but there was no way they could escape the worldwide criticism after the game against Thailand, reproach offered not simply for scoring too many goals, but for also celebrating them too much. So Lloyd toned it down in beautifully obvious fashion, the slow clap underscored by small, spontaneous group hugs and a few soft high-fives along the bench.
Would she have been entitled to more? Damn right she would. At 37, Lloyd is already a soccer marvel, playing the best games of her life this late in her storied career, as fit as anyone on the pitch, as wise as anyone, too, her economy of motion a joy to watch. The half-volley she took just in front of Ertz was an understated gem, her follow-through held back just enough to turn the soccer ball into a missile, impossible for even the great Endler to stop. The header was no different, timed perfectly, featuring a leap so far over the defender Lloyd could have finished off by taking a piggy-back ride.
She is the two-time world player of the year who got to this World Cup in the unfamiliar role of super sub, relegated by coach Jill Ellis to coming off the bench to bring a jolt of energy and spark. That’s what she did against Thailand, but after scoring in that second-half barrage, was part of the sweeping lineup changes Ellis made for the second game, back in as a starter. By scoring again, Lloyd set a World Cup record (men or women) with goals in six consecutive World Cup games.
She gave us a golf clap. She could have given us a back flip, an orchestrated group dance, and a finger count up to six if she’d wanted. This is the World Cup. This is the highest level of play in the world. In. The. World. If you still have to hold back here, when do you ever get to let loose? This is not about embarrassing an opponent. The Thai players and coach took no issue, thankful instead for postgame conversations and encouragement. This is their challenge, and their motivation, to raise their game. At the World Cup level, the lesser teams must rise up. Just as Geno Auriemma’s UConn teams changed women’s basketball for the better, demanding that others meet their dominance, so too can the women around the world handle this.
These women give us greatness. We reward them with lectures. Finger wags we never saw when the original Dream Team routed the Olympics. Pearl clutching we never saw when Super Bowl was synonymous with blowout. I can think of plenty to complain about in women’s soccer — pay gap, marketing shortfalls (try finding an Alex Morgan jersey in men’s sizes), and outright sexism (remember former FIFA boss Sepp Blatter suggesting they wear tighter shorts to gain popularity?). Too many goals, too many celebrations?
No complaint here.Tara Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.