March 5, 2024

Inside U.S. Team, a Campaign to Avert Disaster Gets Personal

In the days since the United States team narrowly avoided an embarrassing early elimination from the Women’s World Cup, Lindsey Horan, its co-captain, has been working the room.

Horan wants a word, with many of the team’s veterans but especially the 14 World Cup rookies. So she has been tapping teammates on their shoulders and knocking on their hotel room doors and pulling them aside in training. Hey, she might say, can we chat for a few minutes?

The message Horan has taken to every player in the dressing room is a simple one. Ignore “the noise” from critics of the team’s play. Embrace the high expectations that shadow the U.S. team. Remember why you started playing this game in the first place.

“Find the joy,” Horan says, and the team will find its way.

Perhaps as much as any U.S. player, Horan, who was named co-captain less than a month ago, has shouldered the burden of its uneven performances at this World Cup. Much has gone wrong, she admitted on Thursday, days before the United States will face Sweden in a round-of-16 match in Melbourne that will end the World Cup for one of them. But she has seen good things, too. And she has seen enough to know it can all snap back into place quickly. Because it has before.

“Once we get a little bit more of that joy back and, you know, that feeling, things are going to move a bit better on the field,” Horan said. “We’re going to have more rhythm; we’re going to have more confidence.”

Joy has been in short supply the last two weeks. The U.S. team came into the World Cup as the favorite to win it, but it is far from living up to its potential. The team lacks chemistry, despite its repeated claims to possess it in abundance. It has struggled to score goals, producing only four in three matches. Game after game, it has looked disorganized, or frustrated, or on its heels. In many ways, it has been the worst showing of the United States ever at this tournament. And it can still get worse.

Everyone — those on the outside and the players and coaches inside the team’s bubble — knows what’s at stake for the U.S. team as it prepares to play Sweden. Its reputation as the best women’s soccer program in history, a four-time World Cup champion, a team that has never been knocked out of the tournament before the semifinals, hangs in the balance.

In this edition of the World Cup, the United States has looked anything but invincible. And in Sweden it is facing a team that knows it as well as any other. The teams have met six times at the World Cup, and in every edition since 2007. The U.S. holds the upper hand in those meetings, having lost only one of them, but Sweden has its victories, too: It eliminated the United States in the quarterfinals at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, and then humbled it again at the Tokyo Games in 2021.

Now Sweden has breezed through the group stage, winning all three of its games and outscoring its opponents by 9-1. It is dangerous and also well-rested going into Sunday’s match, having benched a half dozen regulars in its final group game against Argentina.

The U.S., meanwhile, will be without its midfield engine Rose Lavelle, who is suspended after receiving two yellow cards in the group stage. And it has been buffeted by critics, including a few it knows well. Tobin Heath, a World Cup winner in 2015 and 2019, suggested on her new podcast that the team had become tactically isolated, and perhaps a little naïve. Carli Lloyd, the former star U.S. midfielder who is working as a television analyst for the tournament, tore into the team, saying it had lost its passion and appeared to be taking its past success for granted. Opponents, she said, had lost their fear of the Americans because they could see the team’s “arrogance.”

Horan bristled at that remark. “For anyone to question our mentality, you know, hurts a little bit,” she said. “But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t really care.”

Instead, Horan, 29, said she and several of the team’s most experienced players have taken it upon themselves to try to close ranks, and to persuade their teammates to start to believe in themselves again.

After the Portugal game ended in a 0-0 draw, Kelley O’Hara, a defender competing in her fourth World Cup, leaned into the team’s huddle to deliver a forceful speech about drawing a line under the group stage and seeing how the knockouts offered a fresh start.

Then she stood on the field side-by-side with Trinity Rodman, the young forward, while gesturing to spots on the field in an impromptu coaching session. Megan Rapinoe, another longtime veteran now relegated to a substitute’s role, has pulled teammates aside at halftime of matches and in training and in the hotel to share what she is seeing, to offer her experiences as counsel. Horan’s co-captain, Alex Morgan, has urged the team to rediscover its swagger.

All the while, Horan has continued to make the rounds, to offer words of encouragement behind closed hotel-room doors, in training sessions and at team meals. She has been a conduit to carry the team’s ideas to the coaches, and a messenger to bring them back. She has spoken up, but also taken time to hear people out.

The World Cup rookies are listening. Lynn Williams, a fixture on the team for years now taking part in her first World Cup. She said she had seen Horan take players aside and speak to the team’s coaches. The meetings, she said, take place one on one and in small groups, and they happen anywhere, and at any time. Sometimes, the messages are even unspoken, like the moment Horan shook off a hard challenge by a Netherlands player, strode to the penalty, shoved her aggressor in the chest and scored the tying goal.

“Not only is she leading by like words, but also by example,” Williams said. “So, yeah, I think she’s done a really good job and in rallying the group and keeping us together.

Sitting at a table in front of reporters, Williams turned to Horan and said, “Thanks, Lindsey.”

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