I started playing soccer in New Jersey when I was 7 years old, back in the 1980s — when fathers who had never played the sport were coaching kids who had never played. We were sponsored by a liquor store, as I remember it, and our shirts were pale yellow.
Everything we did back then was the opposite of what U.S. Soccer advises for youth teams today. We played full field, 22 small boys and girls mobbing up and down a hundred yards of freshly mowed grass. We spent half of our practices either running laps or waiting in line to take shots, both of which are now explicitly discouraged for kids. We did headers and slide tackles — moves young kids aren’t allowed to do now — and no one, let’s be honest, was totally clear on the offside rules.
A few years later, I tried out for travel soccer. I have no idea how this happened. My dad had played occasional baseball, and my mom had played nothing, and neither thought sports were very important compared to school. More to the point, there was no girls’ team back then in Lawrenceville, N.J.
And so I tried out for the boys “all-star” team, as it was modestly called. And I made it, which is even more surprising, along with Ana and Andrea, two other girls from my town.
Our coach was the father of one of the boys, and he was out to win. So he benched the girls for most of the games. Now, in my case, that may have made sense. I have a tendency to think instead of acting, which is okay for journalism but terrible for sports. But the two other girls were really good, and they should have been playing.
At the end of the season, we had a pizza party at TJ’s on Main Street. The coach gave out personalized awards for every player: Best Defender, Best Attacker. Then he called all three of us girls up at once. We stood there by the counter, fidgeting uneasily, while he gave us our prizes — “for being tough enough to play with the boys!”
Our big talent was that we were not all soft and girlie. Other than that, we were apparently indistinct from one another. I probably would not have remembered this slight, but my mom kept complaining about it when we got home, calling the coach sexist. I didn’t know what to make of it all, other than to feel as though I’d somehow made a fool of myself. I put the certificate up on my shelf, but I never felt good about it.
After that, the three of us tried out for a girls travel team in Ewing, N.J., a couple towns away. The Ewing girls were better soccer players than the Lawrenceville boys, as it turned out. But the most noticeable difference was that parents and coaches didn’t erupt in cheers every time a girl made the smallest decent play, as they had for the boys team. Praise, when it came, was not always double-edged.
On Sunday, my husband and I will have the great privilege to take our son to watch the United States play the Netherlands in the championship match of the Women’s World Cup. The part that I find so astonishing about this is not that this game is happening; it’s that, at last, it seems to be more than a curiosity. These games look serious, and they are being taken seriously by millions of people.
Around Paris, grown men and women are wearing jerseys that cost a lot of money and say “Rapinoe” or “Morgan” on the back. The U.S. team is being criticized for its ruthlessness, which is new. This team is here to win, not to entertain. When they warm up, they look more powerful than empowered. While here, an older French waiter told me he didn’t like the American style of play. He frowned in casual disdain, the way French waiters do. He complained about the way the United States shifted to defense once they were ahead and held the ball hostage in the corners. He wanted them to play the game.
I told him I could see where he was coming from, and I smiled, secretly delighted because he was taking the team seriously, watching them the way he might watch Real Madrid. Finally. This is the way the sport should be discussed: as a serious business, worthy of heated debate by total amateurs who have strong opinions on the merits, right or wrong.
When the U.S. players take the field Sunday in Lyon, and the fans jump to their feet in a deafening eruption of hope and admiration, I know what will happen. My eyes will involuntarily fill with tears, and I will be vaguely embarrassed, because that’s exactly what my old coach would expect from a girl. And then I will have the time of my life.