USWNT and the X-Factor

The United States’ showing at this Olympic Games has been one of the hot discussion points, but Kris Goman has picked up on something else. A fractured fanbase leading to online hate directed at the team due to misconceptions over the way the players faced during the National Anthem and over the Black Lives Matter Movement could well be having an impact too (4/8/21).

Above: The reaction to the loss to Canada in the Olympic Semi-Final. Photo: Getty Images.

USWNT. Number one team in the world. Performing dismally at the Olympics. No one has ever backed up from a World Cup to take Olympic Gold, but something else is going on here. Out of five games they’ve had one clear win. Two losses and two draws, one of which they went on to win on penalty kicks. And this is coming off a 43 match unbeaten streak.

It’s mostly the same players from the World Cup, certainly the ones that are starting anyway. Julie Foudy, in her daily instagram videos, says the team lacks joy, has no chemistry or cohesion. Fans are screaming for Vlatko’s head.

Fans. The twelfth man. Let’s look at that. This team thrives on the support from their fans. Anyone who went to the World Cup knows what a difference it made. They were there in their tens of thousands being very vocal and some would say obnoxious. But the support was tangible and electric and the team was idolised. This support was their X-Factor.

Above: Some of the social media messages. Photo: Kris Goman via Twitter

X-Factor is defined as a variable in a given situation that could have the most significant impact on the outcome. Times have changed.Covid-19 has meant no fans so all teams are playing to virtually empty stadiums. FAWSL players are used to this. NWSL players, a little less so with limited fans allowed to most matches this season. So that’s one factor.

But there’s something bigger at play here. The USWNT are no longer the darlings of the USA. There’s been a massive change in support since the BLM movement started. It’s arguable that the USWNT have taken the biggest hit here in terms of teams publicly supporting BLM.

Megan Rapinoe was kneeling during the anthem way back in 2016 in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick to protest racial injustice. It ruffled a few feathers but was nothing compared to the commotion caused by Rapinoe saying she wasn’t going to the White House, prior to the World Cup. This got Trump supporters offside and it got international coverage. However, the vitriol was only directed at Rapinoe, despite Ali Krieger and Alex Morgan also saying they wouldn’t go to the White House. They went on to win the World Cup and the team was a popular as ever. Possibly more so as the success garnered them a new large international fan base.

Things chugged along quietly with only Rapinoe getting the hate, driven by Trump supporters mostly but tinged with homophobia. But it was mostly background and Rapinoe seemed well equipped to deal with it. The pandemic started, sport stopped, people had time on their hands.

Then George Floyd was murdered in May and the police violence protests kicked off under the BLM banner. The NWSL 2020 Challenge Cup started in late June and players started kneeling during the national anthem to support the BLM movement and protest police violence. And then things got interesting.

Some players kneeled. Some didn’t. Some teams kneeled. Some players kneeled once or twice and then stopped. Some didn’t sing. Some didn’t put their hands on their hearts. Every anthem was scrutinised to see who was doing what. Fan reaction was immediate and very divided.

Above: A divided fanbase. Photo: Kris Goman via Twitter.

Some saw it as anti American. Some saw the ones standing as patriots. Some said it was disrespectful to the military and veterans. Some saw the ones kneeling as virtue signalling, others saw them as heroes and social justice warriors. Attention was very much on USWNT members. The fan base was splitting and people were saying they’d never support the team again and would no longer watch. They did however stick around on social media to mention this at every opportunity.

As the year ended and friendlies were arranged and the USWNT got back into camps, it was clearly a hot topic of conversation. Becky Sauerbrunn is quoted as saying, “I think, as a team, it was the first time we’ve talked about racial injustice and attempted to have some open conversation about it. And I think our team struggled, we really struggled with it.”

Rapinoe has said, “I mean, I don’t need to spell it out. I think you all know what the conflicts are. But then, it’s like, we have a job to do. And we have to be able to coexist and have hard conversations, and maybe those conversations don’t go great and then you’ve got to go practice and show up for that person.”

Clearly this wasn’t a united team. The team was still able to go out and win, however the tides were turning on social media. Fans were split and leaving in droves. One could argue they weren’t the core fans but they certainly were vocal.

What really tipped the balance was the send off match against Mexico in early July 21. 98 Year old veteran, Pete DuPré, a long time fan, played the national anthem on a harmonica. During this, half of the team turned to face the flag. Half remained facing forward.

Above: A Tweet showing the different directions players faced during the national anthem ahead of the friendly with Mexico. Photo: Kris Goman via Twiiter

The right wing social media ecosystem swung into gear claiming they turned their back on the veteran during the anthem. Both Trump and a former acting director of national intelligence jumped on the bandwagon adding weight to the fake news. What’s clear is that those spreading this fake news had no idea what they were talking about as the players supposedly disrespecting the veteran are the very ones that hadn’t kneeled. But the damage was done and the twitterverse exploded. So much so, US Soccer Comms actually stepped in to try to clear up the misunderstanding. Photos of the flags at the end of the field were tweeted as well as videos of the players signing a ball for DuPré after the match. Unfortunately, Trump followers aren’t known for getting their facts straight and the USWNT became public enemy number one, immediately before the Olympics.

Above: The real reason the players were facing different directions for the national anthem. Photo: Kris Goman via Twitter.

Social media can be a horrible place and any post on any platform by the USWNT social media was met with hate. Every match the “fans” wanted the opposition to win and “Hope they lose” was some of the kinder responses. At times, these sorts of posts were about 80% of the replies. From so called patriots. The hypocrisy was breathtaking.

This had to take a toll on the team. There’s absolutely no doubt that it has affected their mental health and the cohesion of the team but it hasn’t really been mentioned. It’s quite likely the team has tried to stay off social media but they all would have seen it prior to the tournament starting. It was impossible to ignore.

Above: The fall out over misconceptions caused by the direction the USWNT players faced during the national anthem begins. Photo: Kris Goman via Twitter.

Claire Watkins has written an article for Just Women’s Sports yesterday entitled, “What went wrong for the USWNT at the Tokyo Olympics”. She lists many reasons and it’s worth reading but only touches on “divisions within the team about issues of social justice” and she later tweets that three players said the final camp in Houston “kinda sucked” and was “Very tense, very hot, very tiring”.

I think they’ve lost their X-Factor. The Matildas have found theirs and the Bronze medal is theirs for the taking.

Above: Social media tonight showing backing for Australia by people claiming to previously having been supporters of the USWNT – simply because of how they perceive the American team to be conducting themselves. Photo: Kris Goman via Twitter.

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