Seeing the cracks in the USWNT's sacred culture

The culture around USWNT maintains stars and myths. As Graham Parker notes, that heightens the influence of those stars, for better or worse.

Watching the narratives swirl around Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe this past week or so, with Hope Solo before, it’s hard to escape a conclusion: When it comes to the U.S. women’s national team, U.S. Soccer is living in a culture of its own making, one it never intended to create yet, through its decisions, did everything to encourage.

When you enshrine a select group of players economically and culturally, it’s almost inevitable that those players become brands first and players second; at least, you’ve created the conditions to confuse the two.

You’ve created the conditions where players are mindful of their own cultural capital as a brand as much as their technical prowess. You’ve also created a set of highly political conditions for coaches to operate in; you’ve set a de facto speed for youth development and roster turnover, where the incumbents in any position are protected to an unnatural degree compared to elsewhere in the soccer world.

When you’ve done all this on top of a national team culture that already appears to be curated and maintained by the players who came before, you’re creating conditions to anoint and maintain stars and myths, not to continuously replenish the national team.

2015’s double-edged sword

I remember the unease during the last World Cup, as the U.S. stumbled through the group stages. The team looked awkward and dated, relying on brute athleticism at times to outlast technical teams which looked exponentially improved since the London Olympics. The U.S., for its part, looked to have stagnated. There were a lot of questions about the default selection of veterans throughout the squad.

Of course, Carli Lloyd found her position and her form as the knockout rounds progressed, and by the time the final came around, she and the team had produced a memory for the ages. And yet …

… an unsentimental review of the tournament would have to conclude that selecting some of the soon-to-retire veterans to the 23-player roster had massive short-term benefits, but they maybe made for an uncertain future. It reminded me a little of Manchester United in the years after Sir Alex Ferguson changed his mind about retiring. Titles were being won, but the succession issue was not going away. It had just been kicked down the road to become an even bigger problem in the future.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Sweden loss: frozen in time. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

That future arrived this summer in Brazil, ironically enough at the hands of a physical Swedish side who refused to be drawn into the U.S.’ desired game. Now the individual stars who made up last summer’s World Cup win are looking increasingly dispersed to their individual rather than collective fates.

The national-team touring juggernaut rolls on, but it’s harder to see what direction it’s going. Yes, in part that’s due to where we are in the cycle, with no major tournament for three years, but in large part it’s because of all of the distracting stories concerning its stars of the present and immediate past. There was the pettiness of Solo’s dismissal, followed by Rapinoe’s entry into the political sphere by kneeling during the national anthem. Wambach, in a book released last week, admitted to abusing alcohol and prescription drugs. And, in a different sort of sorrowful news, Lloyd reveals in a book to be released on Monday her estrangement from her family. It’s an extraordinary period within the cultural history of the team.

Now a fair degree of blame for these distractions can be placed on the media, particularly the institutional sexism that diminishes and distracts from the accomplishments of extraordinary athletes when they happen to be women. There’s no doubt the U.S. women’s national team players who do anything to make themselves stand out do so within a culture predisposed to caricaturing them.

Pressures to conform

Yet they’re also in a professional situation where the existing culture of the team (“the house we built,” to paraphrase Julie Foudy) is built on them emphasizing their marketable idiosyncrasies while being subservient to the self-policed ideals of the collective. It’s what made Hope Solo’s fate so fascinating. As Scott French pointed out at the time her contract was terminated, Solo eventually paid the price for not fitting with a culture of conformity. Yet at another level, star U.S. players are expected to be strong individual personalities, capable of being the marketable faces of their club teams, and aware that their positions are only as safe as not just their last game but the last installment of their “story.” Solo actually followed that blueprint, just in the wrong direction.

Women in every area of the culture are used to these paradoxes governing their behavior, of course — the suggestion that they be not too much of one thing or the other. It’s a maddening pressure that is elevated to a ridiculous level by the further pressures of functioning as an elite athlete.

These pressures exist in the men’s game too, but in the U.S., at least, when ranks close around brands in the men’s game, it tends to be among those owning and protecting the brands of MLS franchises. In the women’s game, the top protected brands are the players themselves. The clubs are still subservient to the players, and, of course, to the ultimate brand of the national team.

With that in mind, it’s fascinating to look at the different routes U.S. Soccer has taken in selecting the men’s and women’s team management. Ignoring the obvious financial and structural differences in the men’s and women’s games, the different readings of national-team cultures are telling.

The appointment of Jurgen Klinsmann was predicated on the need to impose a desired culture on the U.S. men’s national team, directed by a charismatic and forceful coach with no reverence for reputations. It can be argued that the appointment of Jill Ellis was to accept a culture that already existed, and to limit her own forcefulness to areas where it wouldn’t interfere with the current keepers of the flame.

It’s an irony that, right now, the men’s team could arguably benefit from a little bit of the continuity instincts of Ellis, while the women’s team, and the system that shapes it, could do with some of Klinsmann’s iconoclasm …

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Graham Parker's column, Targeted Allocation, appears weekly on FourFourTwo USA. Follow Graham on Twitter @KidWeil.