No matter what happens on the field Wednesday when the U.S. women’s soccer team takes the field against France, there’s little doubt that everyone watching the game will be witnessing what may be one of the greatest teams in American sports.
Not because they’re sure favorites to win the semifinals and go on to bring home the women’s World Cup for the first time since 1999. They’re not. Rather, they demonstrate the kind of extraordinary team-player qualities than any leader would want from the people who work for them.
The grit and tenacity they showed in Sunday’s game against Brazil—in which they came back from being down 2-1 to win in stunning last-minute fashion despite bad calls, injuries and overtime exhaustion—shows a commitment to hard work and finishing the job that should be the envy of many. In addition, their talk about the United States and what they hope their performance does for women’s soccer proves they’re focused on something bigger than themselves.
But their most impressive team-driven quality may be the outsized importance they place on giving credit to each other. Whenever one player is asked about a big shot or about the game, they almost always give credit to their teammates. “I got it to the back post and that beast in the air just got a hold of it,” Megan Rapinoe said about her teammate, Abby Wambach, and her game-tying goal on Sunday.
But I said almost. For those who don’t recall—or like most Americans, don’t follow women’s soccer—the team had a famous flap in 2007 when Hope Solo, the goalkeeper, spoke too candidly after she was benched in the World Cup final and the women went on to lose the game 4-0. Then-coach Greg Ryan substituted 2004 Olympics star Briana Scurry for Solo in the position—mistakenly, it turns out—and Solo called her coach’s decision wrong. She also had this to say: “There's no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves. … It’s not 2004 anymore,” an implied snub against Scurry.
Her team reacted to Solo’s it’s-all-about-me comments with swift condemnation. Team leaders benched her for the subsequent third-place game. Her team ostracized her, not calling her for social outings on days off and reportedly refusing to eat meals with her. She had broken the social code of women’s soccer, in which team members don’t speak out against each other, and never put themselves first.
The feud prompted plenty of sideline analysis on what this says about women’s sports and gender stereotyping. If a man had said the same thing, the discussion went, we barely would have noticed it. The media seemed to enjoy the cat fight. “Is it fair to ask female athletes to carry a burden of moral or ethical superiority that male athletes are not expected to carry?” asked The New York Times.
But to me, it says a lot more about how strong the team bonds were, and how painful it was for them to be broken. Solo’s teammates may have taken things too far—their shunning her was as bad for team dynamics as Solo’s comments. But their instant reaction is a testament to how tight-knit the group was and, apparently, is.
From the looks of it, the problems have been fixed. New coach Pia Sundhage asked Solo’s teammates “not to forget but to forgive.” Her teammates are now giving her good-natured punches rather than leaving her behind. The team that was so close it cast out someone who spoke against one of its own appears to have not only mended things between each other, but grown and learned from it. Maybe that will be just the edge that makes the outcome of this World Cup different.
More from On Leadership:
Jena McGregor: Facebook ‘likes’ the talent myth
Tom Daschle: Washington's leadership failure
Gail Williams: End of shuttle program launches challenges for NASA