You can debate, more or less endlessly, whether the United States has ever had a better women’s soccer team.
With the 2019 Women’s National Team playing in the World Cup Final Sunday morning in France, there’s not much room left to question the idea that this outfit is the loudest, most famous and most interesting team that’s ever taken the pitch.
By and large, the North Shore loves them for it.
Last week’s thrilling semifinal win over England drew more than seven million television viewers, more than the Stanley Cup (5.3 million) averaged over its seven games. Team USA’s jersey is the hottest selling soccer shirt around.
The team’s social media presence has been gangbusters throughout the tourney, drawing attention as they’ve won games by routs in group play and by the skin of their shins in elimination play. Sunday’s title game against Netherlands should draw 15-20 million viewers if the 2011 and 2015 Finals are any indication.
Many of those fans are right here in the area, where girls soccer is unquestionably one of the North Shore’s most successful and popular sports. Players ranging from middle school to high school, college and beyond have been glued to the action as their heroes chase a World Cup title.
“I think the youngest players are really into the World Cup and follow intensely. I know my club and high school kids are watching every match,” said Pingree coach Doc Simpson. “I’ve enjoyed watching all of the games. I’m impressed with how the rest of the world has improved drastically over the last 10 years. Overall it’s been a great tournament to watch.”
The increased interest isn’t just here at home. Peabody’s Hayley Dowd is in Sweden playing professionally for Moron BK and with the tourney being relatively close by in France, and the Swiss team making the Final Four, women’s soccer has been everywhere.
“I’m surrounded by soccer my entire day, so the World Cup has been a big thing here and we make a big deal to watch every game, even if the USA or Sweden isn’t playing. It’s very easy to watch,” said Dowd, who has 15 goals in 14 games so far this summer, her second playing in Europe.
It’s a little tougher following the TV coverage, though, with the broadcasts being in Swedish, she said with a chuckle.
“It’s fun to play in a country that is doing particularly well in this year’s World Cup and especially a country that puts a lot into its women’s soccer, having multiple levels and leagues,” Dowd added. “There’s always room for growth over here.”
One of the best things about the ‘19 American squad is its depth. World class players fill out the entire lineup, leaving plenty of choices when it comes to favorites.
“I love Alex Morgan because she is one of the all time best. You can’t argue with five goals in one game. She is just a power house,” said Emily Nelson, a striker at UMass-Lowell who starred in her playing days at Peabody High. “But I also really love to watch Rose Lavelle. She is so smart and creative while playing, something I have always strived to be.”
Lavelle, who starred at the University of Wisconsin, has been one of the breakout stars of the ‘19 World Cup. She’s familiar to local soccer aficionados since she played briefly for the Boston Breakers, formerly of the National Women’s Soccer League.
“My favorite players to watch have been Rose Lavelle and Tobin Heath. Both are exceptional with the ball on their foot and play with a lot of creativity. Also I’m thrilled to see the success of Sam Mewis from Whitman Hanson. Good for her and good for the state of Mass,” said veteran Danvers Jimmy Hinchion. “I’m enjoying the style they’ve been playing. Lots of attacking.”
USA’s incredible attacking midfield has so many stars, including the favorite of Beverly High all-star Cassie Jones, “My favorite player to watch is definitely Julie Ertz because I love how she always plays with a chip on her shoulder and always manages to find a way to score when she is close to the net,” she said. “I feel like when the game is on the line she knows how to make big plays.”
Of course, you can’t mention Team USA without taking about their captain Megan Rapinoe, who has had so many huge goals throughout not just this run but her entire storied career.
“At the current moment, she’s my favorite player,” said Dowd. “The USA isn’t in the World Cup final if she isn’t on this team and performing the way she is. I love her confidence and humor on and off the pitch, especially as a veteran player on this squad.”
Keeper Alyssa Naeher also used to play for the Breakers locally, and made one of the plays of the tournament with her penalty kick save in the win over England. The fact that each game seems to have a new hero has been one of the things that’s made this ‘19 crew an inspiring group.
“Another amazing part about this team is the heart they have for their country and the bond they share. You can see the relationships the woman share will playing and putting themselves on the line for their teammates. A perfect example is when Alyssa Naeher saved the PK and every player ran over and hugged her even while the ball was still in play,” said Nelson, who sees a USA win on Sunday with Morgan having a big game.Though they’re the defending champs, Team USA has used a loss in the last Olympics and various criticisms to manufacture an extra edge.
“The best part of this years team is the confidence that they play with and the mentality that they have something to prove each time they set foot on the pitch. I am definitely inspired by the team because whether it’s the forwards, defense, or keeper, the entire team is stepping up in big moments to seal the victory,” said Jones, who predicts a 2-0 USA win sparked by Rapinoe.
It’s been 20 years since the famed ‘99 world champions put women’s soccer on the map. With seemingly each World Cup since, the women’s game has grown — there’s probably no apex or limit to how big the sport’s marquee event can be. Odds are we’ll soon be talking about the 2023 tourney as the biggest yet.
“To me, it’s a huge event every four years. The fact that you have to wait four years makes it so much more special,” Hinchion said. “The success of our women’s team will only continue to help the growth of the game. Every era has new terrific players that are highly recognizable to young female soccer players. I’m hoping my players are watching as many games as possible. You can learn so much by watching and I feel the more you see, the more excited you’ll get about becoming a better player yourself. This is a great time for women’s soccer. I can’t wait for Sunday.”
From analysis of excessive celebrations in the opening game to Morgan’s cup of tea routine against England and Rapinoe’s feud with President Trump, there’s always been something to talk about with Team USA. It hasn’t distracted them on the pitch, yet, and if anything all the mini-controversies have amplified their message and drawn more supporters to their side.
“The US women are masters of the media right now. Be controversial and win —I love everything they are doing and I believe they will win and create more of a buzz than ever,” said Simpson.
The women of the ‘19 US national soccer team are the biggest story in sports at this moment; they deserve to be. The eyes of the nation, and certainly of the North Shore, will be on them Sunday morning.
You can contact Matt Williams at MWilliams@salemnews.com and follow on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.