This story seemed like something Alex Morgan would tell around a campfire.
Back in the day, when players like her needed to find their way into the soccer game, Morgan, 34, liked to start with something called MapQuest. It wasn’t a smartphone app, the kind that would tell you every turn or flash a digital dot to show you where you were, or the sort of reassuring audio.
Morgan said it was a website that generated maps and step-by-step directions, which had to be printed on physical paper. Sometimes teens, like Morgan, would read out the turns while their parents were driving.
“It was a really tough time,” Naomi Gilma, a 23-year-old United States defender who recently heard the story, recalled telling Morgan, feigning sympathy. “Then she said, ‘You don’t know either.'”
Gaps often exist in sports: talent gaps, experience gaps, reward gaps. And in the weeks and months leading up to the Women’s World Cup, which kicked off in Australia and New Zealand on Thursday, the players of the U.S. Women’s National Team have found an unexpected bond in jokes, jabs and stories related to what seems to be their most notable feature, the generation gap.
The oldest player on the team is 38-year-old Megan Rapinoe, an iconic athlete who recently announced that she will retire after this World Cup and the current professional season. The youngest, Alyssa Thompson, is 18 years old, she just graduated from high school, and she still lives with her parents. At least three of her Thompson teammates (Morgan, Crystal Dunn and Julie Ertz) have children of her own.
Thompson said older teammates sometimes play music they don’t know, but various age groups find a middle ground with Cardi B. 22-year-old forward Sophia Smith said she perceives music by genre rather than by artist. “It sounds like what her parents hear,” she said.
Smith admitted last month that he has never used a CD player and refuses to watch TV shows or movies if the video quality is “poor”. One exception is her video of the 1999 Women’s World Cup final, America’s historic victory that fueled the rapid growth of women’s soccer in the United States. Unlike some of her teammates, Smith has no recollection of seeing the team play. Her final was played over a year before she was born.
Others recall another game, the 2015 World Cup final, and Carly Lloyd’s spectacular goal from midfield as a touchstone moment. Four of his current teammates remember that afternoon more vividly because they played in that game.
That generational gap and how the US team will address it will be one of the hottest topics at the World Cup. But it’s also emblematic of a pivotal recent moment in the evolution of women’s sport: an era of controversial debates about equal pay and human rights, and the fight for investment and equal treatment with men. For the four-time World Cup winner, the tournament also presents a relentless new challenge from rising rivals trying to match the level of Americans as coaches, advocates and champions.
United States co-captain Lindsey Horan is one of those veterans who never forgets that young players have a role to play in the fight, and that winning games and championships are at the heart of it.
“There’s always pressure in this team,” said Horan, 29. “We live under pressure and I think we tell young players who are new to the environment that they will be in it for the rest of their careers with this national team.”
Coach Vlatko Andonovski’s job was to build a smooth-running machine using parts from different eras. What makes the task even more difficult for him this time around is the breadth of experience in the players at his disposal. Fourteen of the 23-man roster are World Cup rookies. A few are slipping into roles that have long been watched by veterans who are injured, retired or heading into their final game. This is also the first World Cup for Andonovski.
“I’m not worried about inexperience,” said Andonovski. “I’m really excited about the energy and enthusiasm and the intensity and drive that the young players bring. I actually think that’s going to be one of our advantages.”
However, building chemistry between teammates is not so easy, especially when time is up. Regular intake of Cardi B cannot change that. The team’s recent performances reflect their struggles to incorporate new players into their experienced roster under Andonovski.
At the Tokyo Olympics, which was Andonovsky’s first major tournament as an American coach, the team finished in a disappointing third place. Canada defeated the USA to reach the final and win the gold medal. Just last fall, the United States lost three games in a row for the first time since 1993. One of those games, against Germany, ended a 71-game winning streak in the mainland United States.
The rest of the world seems to be finally catching up.
Canada forward Janine Becky said there were a few teams strong enough to win the 2019 World Cup. But just four years later, she estimated that her six or her seven should be considered full-fledged title contenders.
“This is definitely the most open World Cup in history,” Becky said. “I am very interested to see how this young American team gets through this tournament.
That’s why the older players on the US team have tried to prepare their rookies for what’s to come. So while answering questions about what to bring for a month-long trip to the other side of the world, headphones, a book and your favorite comfy sweatpants were the bare minimum — the older players also went all out to make the younger players feel like they’d been on the team forever.
“The big thing is how do we make young players feel safe,” said Emily Sonnett, a member of the 2019 championship team and returning for her second World Cup this month. “Because if you’re not having fun, why are you here? And if you’re not comfortable, how are you going to play at your best?”
Players, young and old, are beginning to learn that leading by example can be contagious. Rapinoe, who has sometimes been the face of the team and the sport for his outspokenness, said the U.S. team sees it “very important” to use its platform to “express America and its patriotism on the flip side of the word.”
For example, Rapinoe and other players, including Morgan and injured captain Becky Sauerbrunn, have spoken out on social issues such as equal pay, sexual abuse, LGBTQ rights and racial equality.
Players on both ends of the generation gap say veterans don’t ask younger players to be as involved in the same issues. But many of the younger players admitted they feel an obligation to keep that aspect of the team alive.
Gilma said her varsity activism inspired her to speak out on social justice issues while at Stanford University. Shaken by the suicide of a college teammate, Gilma and several of his contemporaries are now using their voices to: Emphasizing the Need for Mental Health Awareness.
Forward Trinity Rodman, 21, said rookies are starting to take responsibility. “I definitely tried to be more than a footballer,” she said, but she said all members of the team were united by a common goal.
“We really want to win. We’re going to do whatever we can to win,” Rodman said.
Then one day they will tell their own campfire story.