ESPvUSA and the Way We Talk About it

Photo credit: Nikita Taparia https://www.instagram.com/kryptobanana/

The biggest problem with the USWNT’s 1–0 win against Spain this week was that neither team was very good. “Not very good” can mean a lot of different things, though, and accordingly, it meant two very different things for each of these teams. The actual content of the game is something that’s already been picked apart by other writers, so I’m not going to look into it at length here. What I would like to talk about is the way we talk about games like this, which is something that increasingly gets under my skin.

When I say that the US was not very good, what I mean is basically that they are out of form, both individually and as a team. If the team’s 3–1 beatdown against France over the weekend was easy to pin on a lineup that was missing key players, it wasn’t clear based on this match against Spain that those players would have made much of a difference, in that almost nobody was very good. If Crystal Dunn had played at left back on Saturday, would she have gotten repeatedly humiliated by Delphine Cascarino the way Emily Fox did? No, but on the other hand, the full-strength lineup we saw Tuesday, featuring Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath out wide and Julie Ertz in the midfield, didn’t look much more likely to score than Saturday’s squad had.

Everyone who started on Tuesday was in full offseason form, looking varying degrees of sloppy and out of ideas and plain old slow. Alex Morgan couldn’t stay onside to save her life, and wasn’t seeing simple passes going forward. Both fullbacks, Dunn and Emily Sonnett, were caught out of position repeatedly. Absolutely nobody — not Rapinoe or Heath or Lindsey Horan — was passing well.

As usual though, despite all that, the US were never in any real danger of losing, and that’s because the way Spain was not very good is that they’re not a very good team.

They passed the ball well, occasionally. They succeeded in putting some pressure on the US, after a while. They were also absolutely incapable of moving the ball out of the middle third of the field, and none of their possession was in any way meaningful. Even when Sonnett or Dunn slipped up, by being in the wrong place or by taking a heavy touch or making a careless pass, the Americans had no trouble recovering. There was only one moment, around the 63rd minute, where Spain looked to have a real chance at scoring, when Dunn was truly caught out and Andrea Falcon sprinted around Becky Sauerbrunn to take a shot.

1–0 was a perfect result for a game where both sides were bad in their own ways, only one is the best team in the world, and the other is Spain. The game’s lone goal, predictably, happened like this: Christen Press received a short pass from Rose Lavelle in the US half of the field, sprinted endline looking like a grown woman among toddlers, and sent a left-footed shot around Andrea Pereira, past keeper Sandra Paños, and bouncing off Irene Hernandez as she slid to try to save it.

It was a beautiful goal, and I don’t want to downplay either that or Press’s overall performance — coming on at the half, she breathed life into the game and was by far the best player on the field for long stretches — when I say that it was the perfect encapsulation of both what was happening in the moment and what always happens in friendlies between the US and any team ranked below, say, fifth or sixth in the world. Which is that they can be bad and still eke out a win with a goal off a set piece or a transition play, one moment of superior speed or skill or athleticism nullifying 90 minutes of mediocrity.

None of that is remotely new or interesting to anyone who follows women’s international soccer, but what started to make me feel faintly uneasy watching this game was the way Ian Darke and Julie Foudy talked about it as it happened.

Both spoke in a series of mealy-mouthed platitudes and cliches, praising Spain’s “creativity” as they utterly failed to create anything, calling them “technical” as American players picked their pockets again and again. When you listen to this kind of commentary, you wonder if you’re going out of your mind, because what you’re seeing is so starkly different from what you’re hearing.

Whether this primarily reflects a lack of preparation for the match, or the general allergy to straightforward, honest analysis that prevails in the women’s game isn’t clear. Regardless, it does a huge disservice to our perceptions not just of an individual game, but of the systemic issues that shape the whole landscape.

To hear Darke and Foudy tell it, Tuesday’s game was an outing between a top team looking to get back on their feet after a tough loss and a talented, up-and-coming squad just on the cusp of breaking into the elite tier. Fair play all around, a good result for both teams, and another chance to trot out the narrative that it’s not just about the USA anymore, that as more federations invest in their women’s teams, there are more serious contenders than ever.

The problem with that narrative is that it isn’t true.

The fact is that the US is still handily the dominant force in the women’s game. They have lost just five times in the 62 games since the start of 2016 — four if you don’t count the quarterfinal of the Rio Olympics, which went to penalties. They didn’t lose at all in 2018. There are fewer than five teams who could reasonably be expected to challenge the US at any given time (and one of them has just plunged itself into chaos by firing its head coach six months before the World Cup).

Obviously, Spain has made strides in the last five years, and we shouldn’t be so cynical as to overlook that. At the same time, when we pretend that the absolutely massive gulf separating them from the US is any smaller than it actually is, what we are doing is erasing the still-enormous disparity with which the Spanish federation, like many, many others, treats its men’s and women’s programs.

The tendency to want to avoid actual criticism at all costs comes from a few places. One of them, surely, is a deeply ingrained sexist notion that women are less serious athletes than men and somehow can’t handle critique. Another, though, is the feeling of precarity that pervades the whole sport, the fear in the back of all our minds that despite whatever progress has been made, the entire thing might collapse at any moment. Both the kind of praise that is blind to actual performance, and the refusal to acknowledge the massive institutional and cultural sexism holding teams like Spain back, except to blithely allude to those forces being a thing of the past, are an attempt to speak legitimacy into being.

This is the part where I’m supposed to say that this won’t work and propose that the solution is better analysis. But while I would certainly prefer that — and I will add that ESPN’s competitor in this space, FS1, is much, much better — it also feels completely unsatisfying as a conclusion here, because what I’m really talking about is all of the systemic problems the women’s game is up against, including, most urgently, massive underinvestment at every level almost everywhere in the world.

The only real takeaway is that it feels increasingly impossible, for me, to talk about this sport at all without constantly acknowledging how profoundly it’s shaped by inequality, both with comparison to the men’s game and when comparing individual sides to each other. At some point refusing to notice what’s always in the background becomes a kind of dishonesty. This game against Spain is also nowhere close to the worst example of all this; the almost farcical CONCACAF tournament this fall threw the problems with the current discourse into much sharper focus.

Changing the way we talk about the sport, being more honest in this specific way, won’t change those inequalities — not overnight and maybe not ever — but it’s a necessary step if we want any hope of change.

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