LYON, France — The U.S. women are a group every bit as badass off the field as on, one the country should be very proud to call its own.
It’s a group of 23 women who believed in themselves and their abilities and weren’t afraid to say so. A group that really and truly liked each other, wanting to win as much for the other 22 on the team as themselves. A group that confronted the issues that have roiled our society – gender equity, sexism, what we stand for as a country – head on, making sure these much-needed conversations keep going.
Their World Cup title is one for the ages, for sure. More than that, though, they’re a team for the ages.
For this age.
United States forward Megan Rapinoe with the golden boot and golden ball after defeating the Netherlands in the championship match of the World Cup. (Photo: Alex Martin, Presse Sports-USA TODAY Sports)
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“Getting to play at the highest level in a World Cup with a team like we have is just ridiculous,” Megan Rapinoe, the embodiment of everything this team represents, said after the U.S. won its fourth World Cup title with a 2-0 win over the Netherlands on Sunday.
“To be able to couple that with everything off the field and to back up all of those words with performances and then back up those performances with words, it’s just incredible,” she continued. “I feel this team is in the midst of changing the world around us as we live. It’s just an incredible feeling. It’s something that’s very special.”
By claiming their fourth star – it had already been added, in gold, to the jerseys they wore for the postgame celebration – this group of U.S. women staked a claim to being the best team in the program’s illustrious history.
Their four titles tie them with Germany and Italy’s men’s teams and leave them one behind Brazil’s men. It also is their second consecutive title, a first for the Americans. Their 26 goals, which include Rapinoe’s Sunday and Rose Lavelle’s rocket of a shot, were a World Cup record.
Jill Ellis, meanwhile, joined Vittorio Pozzo as the only coaches to win two World Cup titles. Pozzo led Italy’s men’s team to the title in 1934 and ’38.
The Americans did it despite having arguably the hardest road to a title they’ve ever had. They had to play host France, ranked fourth in the world, and third-ranked England just to get to the final. The Netherlands is the reigning European champion, and its swift rise in the last decade is emblematic of the challenge the U.S. somehow continues to keep at bay.
“Winning a World Cup is probably the hardest thing you can do in football. And maybe life,” Kelley O’Hara said. “It’s mental gymnastics for the last, what have we been together, 42 days? Or 44 days? It’s so hard.”
And yet, they do not shirk from it. Any of it. It takes an ungodly amount of heat to turn iron into steel, and so, too, was this championship forged in the fire.
There is their lawsuit against U.S. Soccer for gender equity; fans serenaded the champions with chants of “Equal pay! Equal pay!” after the game. There was criticism that they were too “arrogant,” as if female athletes shouldn’t say out loud how good they are. There was reproach for their celebrations, deemed “classless” and “undignified” by some, because heaven forbid they should actually look as if they were enjoying themselves, and each other.
And then there was the international firestorm with President Donald Trump, who took issue with a months-old video of Rapinoe saying she wouldn’t go to the White House and her even older stance on not singing the national anthem or putting her hand on her heart.
Trump did finally Tweet his congratulations at the women, though it was fairly tepid.
“We’ve been tested all. Individually and collectively tested so much,” Alex Morgan said.
But the U.S. women have always seen the higher purpose, dating to that iconic 1999 team. What good are the titles if they don’t lead to change? What good is a platform if you don’t use it to help those who don’t have one?
So Morgan took the critics of their goal celebrations to task for their not-so-subtle sexism. The Americans were celebrating each other, something was very evident as all 12 players not on the field and the coaching staff stood with arms around each other as the final seconds ticked down, swaying and encouraging the 11 on the field.
And Rapinoe stood by everything she has said, and done. She delivered a passionate defense of her patriotism and explanation for her protests, then took FIFA to task for its abysmal treatment of the women’s game.
And, for good measure, she quieted the critics with goals. All four of the U.S. goals in the first two knockout games, and the ultimate game-winner Sunday. She won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player and the Golden Boot as the top scorer.
“She’s the best teammate someone could ask for,” Morgan said. “She had an incredible tournament. Just a testament to her self-confidence and self-belief. The true person she shows every single day with us, she showed the world.”
They all did, really. The indefatigable drive, the belief that hard work can carry you anywhere, the love and care they had for one another — the U.S. women personified America at its best, and they will be celebrated across the country when they return, beginning with a parade Wednesday in New York.
This World Cup title was special. The team even more so.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.