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Big shoes to fill: How the USWNT is moving on from a golden generation

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Megan Rapinoe's goal not enough as USWNT loses to Germany (1:02)

The USWNT has lost three straight games for the first time since March 1993 following a 2-1 defeat to Germany. (1:02)

Rose Lavelle and Carli Lloyd are riding a crowded elevator in a hotel in Frisco, Texas. It's 2018 and Lloyd, unknowingly, is standing atop the tips of Lavelle's sandals. If an ordinary person were stepping on her, Lavelle might've said excuse me or inched backward. But Carli Lloyd is not an ordinary person. Carli Lloyd scored a hat trick in a sixteen-minute stretch to win the 2015 World Cup for the U.S. Not to mention her Olympic-winning goals in 2008 and 2012. This is the person who has lived Lavelle's wildest dreams. So no, she doesn't say a word. But she does covertly record this moment with her cell phone -- the time when a superhero stood on her feet.

Three years later, on October 26, 2021, the day 39-year-old Carli retires, Lavelle posts the video in Lloyd's honor. She explains that day in the elevator, how she "was too nervous to say anything." To close, she adds, "Thank you Carli." Thank you, Carli, for showing us what's possible.

The generation that dazzled the world, winning back-to-back World Cups and three gold medals in a row will soon fade out. At the 2020 Olympics, where the U.S. finished a disappointing third, ten of the eighteen U.S. players had passed their thirtieth birthday. A vibrant infusion of youth is on the way.

The transition will test everyone. And Lavelle, you could say, now has a tangible understanding: these are big shoes to fill.


Thirty-seven years ago, in the coastal town of Jesolo, Italy, the very first U.S. women's national team took the field in hand-me-down jerseys and went home winless after four games. They were new kids on the scene and had played together for less than two weeks. But they were better than their results indicated. They had a certain renegade spirit. They often played on guys' teams or traveled long distances in search of others who loved the game like they did.

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Title IX had slowly begun to change things. With every passing year, more schools implemented the landmark legislation, which required men's and women's programs to have equal funding. This created more school teams and more college scholarships.

Those USWNT pioneers forged their own path, though, sewing on USA patches, explaining to their parents what a World Cup was, passing out flyers and promoting their games themselves. And in 1999, more than 90,000 fans filled the Rose Bowl to watch the United States win the World Cup in a penalty shootout -- and every generation thereafter grew up knowing exactly what the dream could look like.

Megan Rapinoe and Christen Press were kids in the stands. Rose Lavelle dressed up as Mia Hamm for a third-grade book report, homemade gold medal hanging from her neck. Catarina Macario wasn't born yet -- but years later, in Brasilia, while watching YouTube videos of Mia Hamm, Macario and her father were mesmerized by the idea of playing in the United States; meanwhile, in California, Sophia Smith and her father were entranced by YouTube videos of Brazilian star Marta. "Everyone talks about how important it is to be able to see people doing what you dream of doing," says Smith, "and that's exactly what happened with me."

The "see-it-to-dream-it" effect -- and Title IX -- created a country of girls who wanted to be great. Today over a million girls play soccer growing up in the States. Little enclaves of talent pop up here and there: USWNT players Lindsey Horan, Mal Pugh, Sophia Smith and Jaelin Howell all hail from the suburbs around Denver; incredibly, Smith and Howell were on the same kindergarten team. And there seems to be something in the drinking water in Dallas, Texas, where the Solar Soccer Club had seven kids in the 2022 U-15 national player pool. There are youth national teams for every age group beginning at thirteen; 38,873 girls go on to play college soccer. In the increasingly robust U.S. pro league, the NWSL, there are approximately 312 women being paid to play soccer. The more the game grows, the harder it becomes to land a spot on the national team.

The current generation has glamorous Instagram pages and social-media savvy. They have spent less time in the shadows, more time in the spotlight; often mic'ed up at practice, we can hear every breath, every snatch of banter. Players wear sleek, well-cut training gear and high-tech monitors that track each step, each heartbeat. Many national team players have endorsements, commercials, and seven-figure incomes. At the club level, starting NWSL salaries are now $35,000 plus benefits; that figure may be modest compared to the men, but it's five times what it was when the league was founded in 2012. Travel-wise, today's national team now charters flights to world-class facilities -- a far cry from the stories of the early days, when the team traveled on a coal train in China and practiced on a gravel field in Italy. Yet that doesn't mean they've gone soft: making the 2023 World Cup team -- fighting your way through the thicket of talent -- requires more toughness than ever before.

The stories of the players vying for a spot on the U.S. team are punctuated by that trademark hunger -- with the need to be great.


Consider Lindsay Horan, who skipped playing girls high school soccer and instead played spring ball with the guys, because she knew that would make her better. Then, famously, she spurned college and went straight to the pros, even though no American woman had ever done that before. At eighteen, she signed with one of Europe's top clubs, Paris Saint-Germain -- because she believed it was the fastest route to her dreams. She knew there were people who thought she was making a mistake. "Everyone says you grow into who you are in college," says Horan. "I wondered if I would still grow into who I am if I didn't go to college. I thought, I'll find a different way to grow."

First minutes in France, still at the airport: Horan got her untied shoelaces stuck in the escalator. She caused a pile-up, people shouting at her in French, her mother laughing at her in the background. Can anything make you feel more like a child than getting your shoelaces stuck in an escalator? Was it a sign?

"One of the main reasons I made the choice I did was to be uncomfortable," Horan says. "I wanted to risk everything to make the national team." She would score 46 goals in 58 games with PSG.

But she was not chosen for the 2015 World Cup team. "I remember sitting in the stands as a fan in Canada and thinking, I hate this right now," says Horan. "It hit me -- I wasn't good enough yet. I needed to be better. That was the moment that really changed things."

She headed back to the States in 2016 to play for the Portland Thorns. In the 2017 league final, she scored and was named the game's MVP. And by the next World Cup, in 2019, you can bet she wasn't watching from the stands; in game one, she started in the midfield alongside fellow World Cup newcomers, Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle.

Horan blazed a new path -- and others have followed. Teenage sensations Mal Pugh and Trinity Rodman also skipped college soccer and went straight to the pros. Catarina Macario and Sophia Smith left Stanford early.

Smith began competing on youth national teams when she was twelve, playing one age division up. At 15, she was selected for the U-17 World Cup team in Jordan. She remembers the brown buildings, the toll of the bells, and -- most vividly -- sitting on the bench. "My role was minimal," she says flatly.

Her club coach, former Jamaican national team player Lorne Donaldson, recalled the time he tried to bench her. Smith had scored seven goals in the first half; her team was up 10-0. "Sophie, you're done," he told her.

She balked.

He explained that he didn't want to embarrass the other coach.

Donaldson still remembers what she said next: "That's not my problem -- that's his problem. I came to play."

Smith lives to score. There is no cap on goals, no "enough" -- she will score and score again. After the U-17 World Cup in Jordan? "I wanted to prove everyone wrong," she says. She scored nine goals in the next six games, a youth national team record.

Her Bambi eyes are deceptive -- she's the one going for the kill. She very much looks like she's on the hunt: her run is smooth, fierce, calculating. The kid who binged Marta YouTube videos is fond of tricks -- but she doesn't use them idly. She nutmegs you because it's the fastest route to goal.

In 2018, Smith began her first year at Stanford. There she played alongside Catarina Macario, who had made it all the way to Palo Alto from São Luís, Brazil. Macario grew up playing barefoot in a narrow street with the neighborhood boys, using pairs of stray bricks or Havaiana flip flops to mark goals, pausing the game for passing cars. "It was a thrill," says Macario. She was the girl playing with grown men at her uncle's ranch; she was the girl playing futsal on the courts and futevolei (soccer volleyball) on the beaches. "It's like dancing," she says, and she credits Brazil with giving her "that bit of ginga," the Portuguese word for a special blend of flair and imagination.

When Macario was 12 and no longer allowed to play with the boys' teams where her family then lived in Brasilia, her father sent an email to an American club coach: "My daughter is interested in playing soccer in America and we're coming for a visit." Chris Lemay, accustomed to such quixotic messages -- which almost never led to anything -- shot off a quick "sure, come by." Several weeks later, Macario showed up on the field in San Diego. When Lemay got home that night, he told his wife: Macario was the best player he'd ever witnessed.

As with Smith, awed whispers followed Macario (she's special, she's the future). They led the Cardinal to a national championship. Title checked off, each moved on from Palo Alto -- Macario to the European juggernaut Lyon, and Smith to the Portland Thorns. The two of them understood that dominating at the college level is different from dominating in the pros -- and set out to prove they could do it there too. In 2022, 22-year-old Smith won NWSL MVP, scoring 14 goals and carrying the Portland Thorns to the NWSL Championship. Meanwhile, Macario scored 14 goals for Lyon, won the Champions League, and was nominated for the Ballon D'Or. But in the season finale she tore her ACL; now, she's in Doha, Qatar, where she's receiving the best treatment the world has to offer -- fighting to make it back in time for the World Cup.

Other young players are just as hungry: Rodman, Andi Sullivan, Ashley Hatch, and Ashley Sanchez all shined for the 2021 NWSL champions, the Washington Spirit; their performances put them in the Darwinian competition for one of the coveted 23 World Cup spots. On the San Diego Wave, 23-year-old Taylor Kornieck combined so well with Alex Morgan that she too earned a call up-as did 22-year-old Naomi Girma, who won 2022 Rookie of the Year and 2022 Defensive Player of the Year. Like Macario and Smith, Girma is a Stanford grad -- as is 25-year-old Alana Cook, who regularly started during U.S. qualifiers. All have spent the last year attempting to prove to coach Vlatko Andonovski that they belong. And during friendlies against Germany this month, three more new young players came in: the Kansas City Current's Hailie Mace, the Portland Thorn's Sam Coffey, and 18-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who plays with a U-19 boys team -- Total Futbol Academy in MLS Next.

The level they are trying to reach is extraordinarily high. For one thing, the veterans knew each other -- which you can see in the silky combination play and intuitive understanding of space and each other.

At their best, it is breathtaking to watch -- check out the YouTube video of the Christen Press goal during the USA-Mexico game on July 1, 2021: there are six one-touch passes in 10 seconds that sweep the length of the field and end with a tap in.

Several of these veterans are in a race against the clock. Press and Mewis, like Macario, are clawing their way back from knee injuries, while Julie Ertz and Crystal Dunn are returning to form after pregnancy. In the 2022 NWSL semifinal, just 156 days after giving birth, in the last minutes of stoppage time, Dunn rockets the ball into the top corner, electrifying Portland and reminding us just what she's capable of.


Ultimately, the quality that defines the stars of the U.S. team is the ability to score in big-time games against the best. Like when Megan Rapinoe sent a wonder-cross to the head of Abby Wambach in the dying seconds of the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal; or when Carli Lloyd scored in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic finals; or when Alex Morgan scored an impossible header in stoppage time at the end of extra time -- in the 122nd minute! -- to beat Canada in the 2012 Olympic semifinals. Or in the 69th minute of the 2019 World Cup final against the Netherlands, when Rose Lavelle tore up the field, cut left and buried the ball inside the right post -- and straight into USWNT folklore.

Lavelle is 5'6" and skinny. She has heard more than once that she is too tiny, too slight. "That kind of rejection motivated me. I was out for revenge, to show what they'd missed out on," says Lavelle. "If you think that, the joke's on you." She became technical -- remarkably technical -- so she could create separation: "then they can't buck me off the ball." Her small size works in her favor -- she is more evasive, like a leprechaun who dances and tricks and disappears, too quick to catch.

Off the field, she is also wily, playful, impish.

Once, when Lavelle and Horan were roommates on a road trip, Lavelle snuck onto Horan's open Twitter account and, pretending to be Horan, conducted a poll: What should my nickname be? Multiple options were posted, including The Great Horan. "People are voting -- she's off giggling, and I have no idea what she's giggling about," says Horan. The votes came in steadily -- the Great Horan was the clear winner -- and Lindsey was mortified that people might think she was cocky enough to nickname herself that. But the moniker is apt: she has a sweeping, Houdini-like presence, unlocking closed defenses, materializing in space, pulling the game toward her, like she is tidal and all-powerful. Her transatlantic journey appears to have been worth it: In 2021, she was named U.S. Soccer's Female Player of the Year in 2021.

That same year, she began wearing the iconic number 10 jersey, worn by the likes of Pele and Lionel Messi, Michelle Akers and Carli Lloyd -- and now Horan.

The Great Horan -- Lavelle, of course, coined the nickname in jest, because she knew her modest friend would hate it. But make no mistake, greatness is what they're all after. It's more than just a place on the national team and a plane ticket to Australia and New Zealand in June of 2023. Greatness means living up to the standard of excellence created by those who have come before you -- filling those big shoes and going beyond.

From the book "Pride of a Nation: A Celebration of the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team" (An Official U.S. Soccer Book). Essays by Gwendolyn Oxenham, Foreward by Julie Foudy, Edited by David Hirshey, Roger Director, and Rob Fleder. Copyright © 2022 by David Hirshey, Rob Fleder, and Roger Director. Published by Ten Speed Press, and imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.