The United States Women’s National Team are World Cup champions. Again.
They were no underdogs. In fact, the defending champs were the odds-on favorites to win it all, but there are no easy roads to greatness and the soccer players of the USWNT proved as much on their path to 2019 Women’s World Cup glory in France in July.
Of the 23 women on the USWNT roster, two of them hail from Long Island: Defender Crystal Dunn of New Hyde Park and my sister, midfielder Allie Long, of Northport.
They battled through controversy from game one, where the team’s sportsmanship was called into question after their exuberant goal celebrations in a 13-0 record-setting takedown of Thailand. Some called it classless, others called it competitive spirit. Regardless of international opinion, the women continued to dominate.
After going undefeated in the group stages, the team moved on to a ruthless gauntlet of the best women’s soccer teams the world has to offer in the elimination round. They fought through Spain, France, England, and finally the Netherlands on their way to a record fourth World Cup title. In total, the women came up against three of the top five teams on the FIFA Women’s World Rankings.
What followed their 2-0 defeat of the Netherlands in the final round was a victory lap for the ages. After overcoming another controversy over a dropped American flag during their post-game celebrations, the women boarded a plane to New York City, where they appeared on Good Morning America, traversed the Canyon of Heroes in their ticker tape parade, then flew out to Los Angeles for the ESPYs where they won the Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly Award for Best Team, all while championing their fight for equal pay with support from the likes of Sandra Bullock, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, tennis legend Billie Jean King, and many others.
Being the little brother of a spectacularly talented older sister has its perks. It earned me the opportunity to sit down with a world champion and talk to her about her team’s amazing World Cup victory, growing up on Long Island, watching previous USWNTs, and the afterglow of winning it all. Crystal Dunn, who was on a well-earned vacation, was unavailable for comment.
What’s your earliest memory of Youth Center Soccer? Well, you had a red or white interchangeable jersey. I loved those. I loved the orange slices at halftime. And I always had my grandfather, or mom, or dad. Someone was always at my games. Youth Center was just all about having fun and seeing if this something you wanted to do.
Do you think the sport’s popularity here played a big role in two local women out of 23 in the entire country making the National Women’s Soccer League team? Definitely. Six girls on my club team on Long Island were all drafted into the NWSL. I attribute that to Long Island being such a great pocket for really good soccer development.
You went to the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 to see the USWNT play. What do you remember about that? My grandfather took me and my mom. The most important thing that I remember is just being inspired and wanting to be like [USWNT players] Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy and Michelle Akers and Brandi Chastain.
You didn’t know you’d be making the roster until about a month or so before the World Cup began. How did that phone call feel? After our final exhibition game, [USWNT coach] Jill Ellis told us she was going to call us within two weeks. Once that began I was just waiting for that call. When I got the call I just instantly cried.
The USWNT was the odds-on favorite to win it all, but you still met plenty of strong competition. Did you have to make a conscious effort as a team to not let those favorable odds go to your head? We work and we play as if we are the best team in the world. We train as if we’re going to win the World Cup. We don’t even think of second place. So, going into the tournament we don’t even think of [losing]. Even if we didn’t play like it at times, we still always had to believe that we’re going to get it done no matter what.
Which was the more intimidating crowd: playing Brazil in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics or playing France in Paris during this World Cup? France in Paris. The entire stadium was unbelievable. When they scored their first goal in the 80th minute, I’ve never heard a crowd like that, or the momentum shift like that, in my entire career.
You had a wild run after winning it all: after-party in Paris, plane to New York, Good Morning America, ticker-tape parade, plane to L.A., ESPYs, after-parties in L.A., all in a matter of three days. How did you all manage to do that? We’re not used to partying. We’ve been preparing for the World Cup for four months. That was almost just as tiring as going through the World Cup. What’s special about our team is that we’re friends for so long from so many different places and these relationships are authentic and genuine and run deep so what’s better than being able to go through all of that with your 22 best friends?
You met a ton of celebrities and high-profile athletes along the way. Which one left you the most starstruck? LeBron James had us at his Uninterrupted Party honoring the USWNT and brought us up on stage. LeBron is someone I’ve always looked up to and is a pure sign of greatness. For him to honor us and take time out of his party to celebrate us and celebrate women was so special.
Sandra Bullock, Secret Deodorant, and a number of other notable entities have now championed your fight for equal pay. Where do you think the World Cup victory now puts you in that battle? When you win you get a bonus. When the men’s team wins they make six times what we do. This brought that fact to light. Not only that, but this victory is going to inspire the next generation of women’s soccer players. How can you not pay attention to a team that has won more World Cups than any other country?
Do you and the team discuss the controversies and negative press or is it more accepted as a byproduct of all the success? When we do something and people are talking about it we do wonder whether people would say the same things of a men’s team. They say soccer is boring, we score 13 goals, they say we’re too arrogant. You can’t please everyone and we know that.
What about your flag incident? With me putting the flag on the ground and people saying it was intentional, I apologize if anyone felt offended in any way, but that was never my intention. I’m so proud and honored to represent the best country in the world. Every time I put that jersey on it’s so special for me and I do not take it for granted.
Do you ever read comments sections? I actually turned my comments off after the Cup because the people who thought I dropped the flag on purpose were just relentless. It doesn’t bother me much but little girls are watching and looking at my page and if you’re going to alter the way they think of me that’s what bothers me because I want to inspire young girls. That’s what this is about, it isn’t about politics.
What would you say to someone who doesn’t consider you and your teammates to be good role models for young girls? I’d say if we’re not good role models then who is? We represent unity, we represent inclusion, we represent love, we represent competitiveness, we represent discipline, hard work, sacrifice. Every single thing you’d want your child to look up to, that’s what we embody. We’re winners. For me, there’s no better role model than the USWNT. These women are powerful, strong, fierce females, and they stand up for what’s right.
How did our parents influence you? Well, Mom played soccer, so growing up she was always someone I would practice with. Our dad was a rugby player, so I got my tenacity and competitiveness and fierce attitude from him. It was a good combination.
What’s next? Well my National Women’s Soccer League season is going on right now and this league needs exposure. Needs more viewers, more fans, more writers writing about it, more money in it. Making that happen is my focus right now. Then there’s the Tokyo Olympics next summer. Next up is an Olympic gold medal.