The story seemed like one Alex Morgan might tell around a campfire.
Back in the day, the 34-year-old Morgan likes to start, when players like her had to find their way to their soccer games, they used something called MapQuest. It wasn’t an app for your smartphone, the kind with a soothing voice that announced every turn and flashed a digital dot to show your location.
It was a website, Morgan said, that generated a map and a list of step-by-step directions that you had to print out on actual paper. Sometimes it fell to pre-teens like Morgan to read the turns while a parent drove.
“That was such a difficult time,” U.S. defender Naomi Girma, 23, recalled telling Morgan after hearing the story recently, feigning sympathy. “And she was like, ‘You don’t even know.'”
Sports are often about gaps: talent gaps, experience gaps, compensatory gaps. And in the weeks and months leading up to the Women’s World Cup, which began Thursday in Australia and New Zealand, the players on the U.S. women’s national soccer team have found an unlikely connection in jokes, jabs and stories related to what may be their most notable trait: a generation gap.
The oldest player on the team is Megan Rapinoe, 38 years old, the iconic athlete who recently announced that she will retire after this World Cup and the end of her current professional season. The youngest is Alyssa Thompson, who is 18 years old, just graduated high school and still lives with her parents. At least three of Thompson’s teammates — Morgan, Crystal Dunn and Julie Ertz — have children of their own.
Thompson said her older teammates sometimes play music she doesn’t recognize, but that the different age groups find a middle ground with Cardi B. Sophia Smith, a 22-year-old forward, said she recognizes the music, though by genre, not artist. “They sound like what my parents listen to,” she said.
Smith admitted last month that she has never used a CD player and that she refuses to watch TV shows or movies if the video quality is “grainy”. One exception: videos of the 1999 Women’s World Cup final, a historic victory by the United States that spurred the rapid growth of women’s soccer in America. Unlike some of her teammates, Smith has no memory of watching that team play – the final was played more than a year before she was born.
Others remember a different game – the 2015 World Cup final, and Carli Lloyd’s wonder goal from midfield – as their touchstone moment. Four of their current teammates have much more vivid memories of that afternoon, as they played in the match.
That generation gap, and how the US team deals with it, will likely be one of the standout stories of the World Cup. But it is also a symbol of the last pivotal moment in the development of the women’s game: a time of contentious debate about equal pay and human rights, and of battles for investment and demand for equal treatment with men. For the United States, a four-time World Cup winner, this tournament also presents a new, relentless challenge of rivals rising to meet the Americans’ level as leaders, spokespeople and champions.
Lindsey Horan, the co-captain of the US team, is one of the veterans who won’t let the younger players forget that they have a role to play in that battle, and that winning games and championships is at the heart of it.
“There’s always pressure on this team,” Horan, 29, said. “We live in pressure, and I think we let that know to any new, younger player coming into this environment that you’re going to live in that for the rest of your career in this national team.”
The job for coach Vlatko Andonovski was to build a smooth-running machine from parts built in different eras. What makes the task even more difficult for him this time is that the players at his disposal have extensive experience. Fourteen members of the 23-player roster are World Cup rookies. Some are slipping into roles long patrolled by veterans who are now injured, or retired, or facing their end games. It is also Andonovski’s first World Cup.
“I’m not worried about the inexperience,” Andonovski said. “Actually, I’m excited about the energy and enthusiasm that the young players bring, the intensity and the drive as well. Actually, I think that will be one of our advantages.”
Building chemistry between teammates is not so easy, however, especially when time is running out. Not even regular doses of Cardi B can change that. The team’s recent record reflects its struggles under Andonovski to fit new players into the experienced roster.
At the Tokyo Olympics – Andonovski’s first major tournament as US coach – the team finished a disappointing third. Canada defeated the Americans to reach the final, then won the gold medal. Just last fall, the United States endured its first three-game losing streak since 1993. One of the losses, against Germany, snapped a 71-game winning streak on American soil.
The rest of the world, finally, seems to be catching up.
Janine Beckie, a forward for Canada, said there were two or three teams at the 2019 World Cup that were strong enough to win it. But now, just four years later, she estimated that six or seven had to be considered serious title contenders.
“This is definitely the most open World Cup in history,” Beckie said. “I’m really interested in how this young American team goes through this tournament. They can either have a fresh mindset and recover quickly from game to game, or they can have players who are overwhelmed by the length of the tournament. Being there for a month from start to finish is really hard, especially when you haven’t experienced it before.”
That’s why the older players on the US team tried to prepare the newcomers for what to expect. So as they fielded questions about what to pack for a month-long trip to the other side of the world — headphones, books and a favorite pair of comfy sweatpants were the bare minimum — the older players also went out of their way to make the younger players feel like they’d been on the team forever.
“The important thing is, how do we make the young players feel comfortable?” said Emily Sonnett, who was a member of the 2019 championship team and returned this month for her second World Cup. “Because if you’re not having fun, why be here? And if you’re not comfortable, how are you ever going to play your best?”
Players young and old have learned that leading by example can be infectious. Rapinoe, whose outspokenness has at times made her the public face of her team and her sport, said the U.S. team considers it “incredibly important” to use its platform to “represent America and a sense of patriotism that turns that term on its head.”
For example, Rapinoe and others, including Morgan and the injured captain Becky Sauerbrunn, spoke about social issues such as equal pay, sexual abuse, LGBTQ rights and racial equality.
The veterans didn’t push the younger players to be as involved in the same things, players on both sides of the generation gap said. But many of the younger ones admitted that they feel a sense of duty to keep that aspect of the team alive.
Girma said she was inspired by the national team’s activism to speak out about social justice issues while she was in college at Stanford. Shaken by the death of a college teammate there who killed himself, Girma and several of her contemporaries are now using their voices to highlight the need for mental health awareness.
Forward Trinity Rodman, 21, said responsibility is one the newer players have begun to embrace — “I’ve definitely tried to be more than a soccer player,” she said — but that every member of the team has been united by a goal they all share.
“We want to win so bad,” Rodman said, “and we’re going to do everything we can to win.”
That way, someday, they’ll have their own campfire stories to tell.