Niyo: Defiant, dominant Americans run with 'whatever it takes' attitude

John Niyo
The Detroit News

They keep trolling and rolling. They’re daring and swearing. And as we get ready to celebrate Independence Day here in the United States, what better ambassador could there be right now than this strong-willed sisterhood strutting its stuff in France?

Alex Morgan scores in the semifinal against England on Tuesday.

You want a parade showing America’s real strength? Well, here it is, in all its star-spangled glory, the defiant and still-dominant U.S. women’s national team marching into another World Cup soccer final Sunday in Lyon.

Amid all the criticism and controversy – much of it manufactured by others, but all of it accepted as the price of progress and progressiveness – the Americans keep winning, their latest triumph on Tuesday proving to be another tour de force.

They threw their own tea party, invited a hard-tackling side from England that seemed put off by their impertinence – U.S. Soccer officials had the gall to scout out the team hotel reserved for the World Cup finalists – and then after beating back the Brits once more, the Americans celebrated, with pinky fingers extended.

Some English supporters found Alex Morgan’s tea-time celebration of her decisive goal rather derisive – “That for me is a bit distasteful,” said Lianne Sanderson, a former England national team member turned broadcaster – but it was all in good fun. And another measure of this U.S. team’s feisty competitiveness, at that.

After marveling at teammate Megan Rapinoe’s meme-worthy goal celebrations in this World Cup, “I wanted to keep it interesting,” Morgan explained to reporters at the post-match press conference.

But the U.S. star, who also was celebrating her 30th birthday Tuesday, wanted to deliver a message as well.

“Because this team has had so much thrown at us and we didn’t take the easy route to the final,” she said, before adding with a smile. “And that’s the tea.”

Reward is overdue

And that’s the truth, as this showcase event for women’s sport plays out against the backdrop of inequality. Soccer’s governing body, FIFA, still treats the women’s game like an afterthought, with little promotion and paltry bonus-pool payouts.

Yet the same is still true for U.S. Soccer in some ways, which is why back in March the entire 28-member women’s squad filed a gender-discrimination lawsuit against its own federation over pay equity and working conditions. Both parties reportedly have agreed to mediation after this World Cup ends, but the players’ case grows stronger with every result. They’ve generated considerably more revenue than their male counterparts going back to 2015 – the U.S. men didn’t even qualify for the 2018 World Cup – and it is past time they were rewarded for it.

USA teammates hug goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher after she saved a penalty shot taken by England's Steph Houghton during Tuesday's semifinal.

The U.S. women are vying for a second straight World Cup title and fourth overall, to go along with four Olympic gold medals. They’re the result of decades of grassroots growth, and one of the great legacies of this country’s Title IX legislation that's nearly a half-century old.

But if you listen to the pitch from their coach, Jill Ellis, you’ll hear what they really are. They’re a product of their environment, from the uber-competitive training camps that predated the fabled ’99ers – Mia Hamm and the rest of a transformative team that packed the Rose Bowl 20 years ago – to the slings and arrows all dynasties inevitably face.

“Some teams visit pressure, but we live there,” said Ellis, who was born in England and had “zero opportunity to play” soccer competitively until she moved to the U.S. with her family at age 15.

“So ‘whatever it takes’ has kind of been the mentality and the mindset of this team,” Ellis added. “And I think the big credit to this group of players is they are incredibly tight. You can see that. They pull for each other. They’re well-invested in each other. They have each other’s backs. And I think that also strengthens a team’s ability to get it done collectively.”

That strength was on display again Tuesday as the U.S. shook off the absence of Rapinoe, who was sidelined by a hamstring injury after scoring all four of her team’s goals in knockout-stage wins over Spain and France.

Rapinoe, 33, is this team’s brash and bold leader, an outspoken and openly-gay athlete who has referred to herself as a "walking protest when it comes to the Trump administration.” Last week, she also became a target of President Trump’s Twitter ire after months-old comments about boycotting a possible White House invitation resurfaced. But her clutch performance against the host nation – and that iconic victory pose that went viral on social media – only reaffirmed her standing.

"I’d say, if anything, this stuff just bounces off her," Ellis said.

And that resilience runs deep with this team. So of course it was Rapinoe’s replacement, Christen Press, scoring the first goal of Tuesday’s semifinal match, right? Only 10 minutes into the match, no less.

'Standard bearer'

Still, this emboldened team from England – bolstered by its own federation’s support in recent years -- knows it can compete with the U.S. now, having played the Americans to a draw back in March and rising to third in FIFA’s world rankings.

So while an apparent goal for England in the 68th minute was waved off for an offside call after a video review, there was still more drama to come. It took Alyssa Naeher’s brilliant save on a penalty kick in the 84th minute to secure the win, a signature moment for a keeper making her first major tournament run as the U.S. starter in goal.

“Alyssa … she saved our (expletive),” Morgan said in a Fox Sports interview moments after the final whistle. “Sorry, excuse that, but she saved our butts today.”

No apologies necessary, though. The U.S. women have thrown a lifeline to so many others over this remarkable run, they’re owed a debt of gratitude, at least. Even England’s coach, Phil Neville, who won six Premier League titles playing for powerhouse Manchester United, will admit that.

“They’re the standard bearer,” he said. “I played for a football club that won a lot and we were the ones that everyone was wanting to catch. Eventually teams caught Man United. And eventually we will catch the USA. But at the moment, they are the best team – and they’re the best team because of that winning mentality.”

If you ask Ellis, the U.S head coach since 2014, she’ll tell you it’s a testament to everything they’ve built. The culture, the environment, the history, the tradition.

“It’s a resolve that’s just fantastic,” she said.

Fun to watch, too, as record-setting TV audiences showed again Tuesday, both here and abroad. Fox Sports is touting strong ratings with its coverage, and FIFA said it expects the tournament to top 1 billion viewers for the first time. (England’s semifinal loss to the U.S. was the most-watched British TV broadcast of the year.)

So, yes, they’re entertainers. But they’re advocates as well, which is why Rapinoe and the rest of her teammates refuse to back down from the “stick to sports” crowd. And with each victory, the objectives only become more clearly defined.

“You’re not necessarily going to reap all the benefits,” Morgan said, explaining why these athletes are activists as well. “But your hope is that next generation will.”

If nothing else, that’s an American ideal worth saluting.

World Cup final

Matchup: USA vs. Netherlands 

When: Sunday, 11 a.m.

Where: Lyon

TV: Fox