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Benefield: US women’s team caps off dominating World Cup run

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The United States Women’s National Team bore the burden of expectation. They bore the burden of the unrelenting scrutiny. And for four weeks at the Women’s World Cup in France, they bore the responsibility of wearing the jersey of the United States, a nation whose place on the world stage in 2019 is undeniably fraught and complicated.

And they never bowed. They won. Convincingly.

The U.S. beat a tough, scrappy and overachieving Netherlands team 2-0 in Stade de Lyon on Sunday to capture their second straight and fourth-ever World Cup trophy and further secure their place as the most dominant program in women’s soccer.

Megan Rapinoe, a co-captain and outspoken leader of this team, will be credited with the game winner after she finished a penalty kick in the 61st minute. But midfielder Rose Lavelle’s goal eight minutes later is more important to the future of the United States national team.

Lavelle’s brilliant strike after streaking through defenders starting at the half line, cemented the win, took every bit of wind out of the sails of a tough Dutch team and announced to the world that yes, Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn and others on this roster are in their 30s but the future of the United States national team is in fine hands.

Before the tournament even began, this absolutely loaded with talent U.S. team was hammered for their confidence, for having the temerity to believe and — oh my — say out loud that they were coming to defend the cup.

Arrogant? Distasteful? Unpatriotic? A hue and cry for this group to stay in their lane? This team’s lane is an eight-lane highway.

In more than 630 minutes of soccer over seven games in four weeks, this team never trailed. They scored within the first 12 minutes of every game they played barring the final when it took them 61 minutes to get on the board and take the lead, thanks in no small part to an unbelievable effort put in by the Netherlands’ goalkeeper, Sari van Veenendaal.

Their dominance was thrilling and it was total. No team was close, and this was the most packed with talent fielded in the history of women’s soccer. And this: No team had to run the gauntlet that the Americans did, either on the field or off.

They had to beat some of the strongest teams in the world, including host France, to even make the final. Instead of celebrating their strength and skill after their opening round 13-0 win over Thailand, the only thing seemingly everyone could talk about was their so-called distasteful goal celebrations. It’s a storyline that lingered throughout the tournament and one that quickly morphed into a label of arrogance.

What’s that old saying: It ain’t bragging if it’s true?

This is the top-ranked team in the world. They are only the second squad on earth to win back-to-back World Cup titles. They are a group who set a record for most goals in a World Cup. They are a team that owns the most World Cup titles ever.

They celebrate goals with gusto because they were earned against the greatest assemblage of soccer talent in the world. Score here and it’s the biggest moment of a career, the first line of an obituary and a moment that will never be forgotten. And it’s a moment to celebrate. Tone it down? Please.

This is a team that had to sue its own federation in an effort to be treated fairly and equitably.

For years, generations in fact, of U.S. National Team leaders were told that despite their incomparable success, despite their growing popularity — despite it being the right thing to do — equal pay wasn’t possible, isn’t deserved and can’t be done because there simply isn’t a market for the game.

Tell that to the fans – men and women, boys and girls – who are buying more women’s national jerseys than those for the men’s team. Tell that to the fans crammed into stadium Sunday chanting “Equal Pay,” louder than “U.S.A.” as their team raised the World Cup trophy.

FIFA officials last week announced that the Women’s World Cup in 2023 will grow from 24 teams to 32 and the prize money will be upped from $30 million to $60 million. Great, right? Sure, except that the 2022 Men’s World Cup prize purse is being boosted to $440 million, an increase of $40 million over the prize money doled out to men’s teams last summer.

Enough, according to Rapinoe.

“Everyone is ready for the conversation of equality to move to the next step,” she told reporters after the game. “Let’s get to the next point of how we support women’s programs around the world. Every player at this World Cup put on the most incredible show you could ever ask for. It’s time to move the conversation forward.”

This team has to train and prepare and practice for competing on the grandest stage in all of soccer, while also fighting for basic equality. And still they win.

Asked about hearing the chants of “Equal pay” raining down from the highest seats in the stadium, Rapinoe said, “The world has our back.”

Except that they don’t. Not all the world, at least. There are plenty of people here and abroad and in the mostly vile world of social media commentary, who have heaped offensive labels on this team. You don’t have to look far.

Be the best and people come gunning for you. Be the best and offer your opinions and people fire even more volleys. Be the best and demand respect, equality and what you deserve? Might as well serve you up to the firing squad.

And yes, after Wednesday’s ticker tape parade in New York City, this team will no longer appear on the front pages of the sports pages regularly. They will cease to make guest appearances on morning news shows and late night talk shows.

But they’ll keep coming. The average age of this team is 28. But the future looks blindingly bright. Rose Lavelle is all of 24. Lindsay Horan is 25. Samantha Mewis and Morgan Brian are both 26, Crystal Dunn and Julie Ertz are 27. And Mallory Pugh, often touted as the next big American offensive weapon, turned 21 on April 29.

The future has arrived.

But we still get to enjoy, appreciate and support the veterans. Rapinoe, who has had a long and winding road of injuries throughout her career but remains a player who shows up big in big moments, isn’t letting go of the public spotlight. Nor should she.

She’s the winner of the Golden Boot. Listen to her. She was named the most outstanding player of the tournament. Listen to her. She speaks of goals and wins and legacy, but she also speaks about respect, equality and fairness.

“I’ve said this before, but I feel like this team is in the midst of changing the world around us as we live,” she told reporters after the game.

It is my firmest hope that the next generation of players — the likes of Lavelle, Pugh, Brian and Horan — will follow Rapinoe and the rest of the veterans not just in how they handle themselves on the field, but how they handle the spotlight, how they manage the microphone.

As long as they keep winning, the world — large chunks of it at least — will be listening.

And for those who are bothered, unnerved, off put by a group of strong, successful, aggressive, confident women who are the best in the world at what they do, I have a bit of advice: Look the other way. This team isn’t going anywhere.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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