Rooting against your country’s national team—as in, for Americans, against a group of athletes wreathed in the Star-Spangled Banner, hoping to consecrate their homeland with glory—should be a historically flagrant faux pas. I can honestly think of no greater sin in sports fandom; it’s some real traitorous behavior, high-key Benedict Arnold shit. And yet, when the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team bombed out of the World Cup after a long, bitter, frustrating 0–0 draw against Sweden—capped off with a trio of botched penalty kicks—I was not surprised to see some of the most annoying people in the country dancing on their tournament grave.
“WOKE EQUALS FAILURE,” posted Donald Trump, to his many sunburnt followers on Truth Social. “Nice shot Megan, the USA is going to Hell!” (Trump is referencing veteran midfielder Megan Rapinoe, who airmailed one of those PKs in what was her last match with the team. We’ll get to her in a moment.)
“When they lost, I wasn’t sad,” added Franklin Graham, the useless scion of celebrity pastor Billy Graham, who honestly has an underrated case of being the worst of all American characters. “I wish I didn’t feel that way, but when players think it is more about them than the nation they represent, I can’t support that.”
And here’s Alexi Lalas, former U.S. men’s team player, DeSantis backer, and longtime soccer commentator, who echoed these hollow concerns. “Don’t kill the messenger. This USWNT is polarizing. Politics, causes, stances, and behavior have made this team unlikeable to a portion of America,” he tweeted. “This team has built its brand and has derived its power from being the best/winning. If that goes away they risk becoming irrelevant.”
The thing you need to know about the USWNT is that they’ve always been proud to be Americans. Rapinoe—who has garnered the lion’s share of MAGA attention due to her outspoken progressivism and fearless queerness—grabbed a field microphone and screamed the chorus of “Born in the USA” after overwhelming a Colombian goalkeeper at the 2011 World Cup. If nationalism is your thing, this team has always been easy to root for.
So yes, the place of women’s soccer in post-Trump America has gotten weird. The hatred of the USWNT is not the project of a fringe, trollish contingency in the American ecosystem—these aren’t pickled tweets from anonymous hucksters delivered solely to get a rise out of us. No, this has become a genuine fixture of the conservative media content strategy—an orthodox opinion that will be shared by pretty much everyone sharing the GOP debate stage this winter. The fundamentals of their discontent are pretty straightforward. The members of the U.S. women’s team have espoused progressive opinions about equal pay, social justice, and LGBTQ+ rights, none of which Republicans like. But the full saga of this cold war is much longer, and much stranger. Let me recap it all, in three parts.
1990–2014: The Prehistory, or: “Soccer Is for Sissies”
In some feeble stateside minds, the tantamount aesthetic possessed by soccer is that it’s distinctly “not American.” That is essentially true. Yes, we’ve been playing the game since the Civil War, but our sporting taste splintered off from the world’s in the 20th century after falling in love with baseball, and then basketball and gridiron football, which has long distinguished North American culture from our genteel contemporaries across the Atlantic. Despite the popularity of youth soccer, on the elite level, soccer in America languished in relative dark ages for several decades afterward. My dad, who is from London and lives and dies by English World Cup results, distinctly remembers being forced to tune into our Spanish-language channels to catch yet another disappointing loss against Argentina in the 1998 tournament. But that slowly started to change by the 2010s, as the generations turned over, the Latino population exploded, and NBC started inking mega deals to broadcast English Premier League games live. Soccer was becoming cool, which naturally sparked a withering rebuke from the proto-MAGA movement.
“Real Americans hate soccer,” announced Ann Coulter, in a column published to her website in 2014. The U.S. men’s team had just made it out of the group stages at the World Cup (and were days away from getting smoked by Belgium.) This might shock you, but Coulter’s reasoning was hacky and nonsensical. “It’s low-scoring, there are too many ties, you can’t use your hands,” etc., etc., etc.. More to the point, she compares soccer to the metric system, “which liberals also adore because it’s European,” and caps off her argument with the so-racist-it-doesn’t-even-count-as-a-dog-whistle proclamation that the only people in America watching the sport are those who came here via “Ted Kennedy’s 1965 immigration law.” This is the baseline logic for the hatred of soccer: It is foreign, liberal, and soft—all the evidence you need to buy into Great Reset–esque conspiracy theories.
There’s more where that came from. Marc Thiessen, former George W. Bush speechwriter, argued that soccer is a “socialist sport” in 2010. (If anything, the opposite is true. The competition is kind of stiff these days, but there’s a good case that soccer is the most avaricious, psycho-capitalistic sport by a fucking mile.) And Glenn Beck—at the apex of his unhingedness—unfavorably compared Barack Obama’s domestic policies to the World Cup in 2014 on his radio show. The thing is, all of these cranks were focused on soccer as a concept, rather than singling out any particular actor as the target of their ire. That would all change soon.
2014–2019: They Hate Us Because They Ain’t Us
The first full Women’s World Cup I ever watched was in 2011, when the U.S.—historically the favorite in these brackets—made a heroic push to the finals, only to be outdone by a feisty and cunning Japanese side. This is when I first got to know the golden generation of players who would soon bring home back-to-back trophies: Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, even the soon-to-be-retired legend Abby Wambach, who scored one of the greatest goals in tournament history against Brazil. The team would get their revenge first by beating that same Japanese team in the following year’s Olympics, and then absolutely annihilating them in the 2015 World Cup Finals—in what is maybe the only time in my life where I swelled with wonderfully intoxicating nationalistic pride. (They’d win again in 2019, but nothing could match the sweetness of 2015.)
By that point, the anti-soccer conservative movement was keying into high gear, and at last they had found a target to focus their incoherent irritation. The cracks started to show in 2016, when Rapinoe—in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, whose protest of kneeling during the national anthem to support racial justice was willfully misinterpreted by Americans across the country—also dropped to a knee at the beginning of a match between her club, the Seattle Reign, and the Chicago Red Stars. (“It’s the least I can do. Keep the conversation going,” she tweeted. Before long, multiple of her USWNT teammates were joining.) A few years later, in 2019, when the U.S. was defending its championship, a reporter asked Rapinoe if she would visit the White House if she secured the World Cup. Her response? “No, I’m not going to the fucking White House.” Pretty definitive!
Trump, of course, immediately riposted with his usual grievance candor. “Megan should never disrespect our country, the White House, or our flag, especially because there has been so much done for her and the team.” From there, Rapinoe—and her contemporaries—were forever enshrined on the MAGA movement’s bulging enemies list. Sue Bird, superstar basketball player and Rapinoe’s partner, even wrote a story about what it was like to be villainized by a sitting president.
2019–2023: Equal Work for Equal Pay, and an Uncertain Future
The U.S. Women’s National Team is, in fact, made up of women, which means that they’ve dealt with all the same institutional biases that have afflicted women’s sports for centuries. Most recently, the squad squared off in a lengthy, messy, protracted legal fight with the American pro soccer apparatus to secure the same pay as the men’s team. The players started the process in 2016, before finally achieving victory in 2022.
Any interaction the team had with feminist principles was going to be opposed by the boorish and cynical, and this labor fight was no different. “[They] curry victimization with false narratives about equal pay,” tweeted the reliably annoying Fox host Will Cain after the Sweden loss. “Nobody made it harder to root for them than the USWNT.”
“Funny to see greedy, America-hating Megan Rapinoe in tears,” added Ben Kew, one of the leading minds behind websites such as RedState and Breitbart.
And so on and so forth. It would be nice if the USWNT could immediately get back to work, avenge their defeat, and throw guys like Cain, Graham, and dozens of other like-minded MAGA charlatans into the dumpster. Unfortunately, the team’s next test, the 2024 Olympics, is still a year away. (To say nothing of the 2027 World Cup.) The program itself is in the midst of a roster transition: Alex Morgan is 34, Crystal Dunn is 31, and Megan Rapinoe is now officially retired. At the same time, the rest of the world has invested increasing resources into their women’s teams, and the competition has gotten much better in recent years. The next incarnation of this team will lack most of the stars who brought glory to the USA, and their successors will face tougher opponents. Nothing lasts forever, and winning at international soccer is really, really hard. The window, as we understood it, might be closed for some time. That might be good news for the Trump-aligned coalition who hates their nation’s team, but it’s a bummer for the rest of us patriots.