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Column: Women’s World Cup: U.S. ignoring its critics as it focuses on title

United States’ Jessica Mcdonald, left, and Kelley O Hara celebrate after winning the Women’s World C
U.S. forward Jessica Mcdonald, left, and teammate Kelley O’Hara celebrate after beating England in a Women’s World Cup semifinal match on Wednesday.
(Francisco Seco / Associated Press)

The U.S. women’s World Cup team, remarkably deep at every position and easily capable of switching from a skill game to gritty, bruised-shin football, has paid a price for its excellence by being labeled arrogant during this tournament.

Its offenses include excessive celebrations after scoring goals — a charge that had a seed of merit during their 13-0 rout of Thailand in group play -- and reserve defender Ali Krieger stating the obvious: that this is the best U.S. women’s squad to wear the red, white, and blue on a soccer pitch. Given the program’s illustrious history, that’s saying a lot. And it’s true. Three years after a surprise quarterfinal loss at the Rio Olympics showed they had become stale in tactics and personnel, the U.S. women are poised to become champions again.

Standing between them and their second straight World Cup title — and fourth overall — is the Netherlands, which became a women’s soccer power as a result of getting more funding and overdue support from its national federation the past few years. The Dutch are a skilled possession team and they have productive scorers in Vivianne Miedema and Lieke Martens, but American Alex Morgan shares the tournament goal-scoring lead with six and teammate Megan Rapinoe, who missed the team’s semifinal win over England but said she expects to play on Sunday, has scored five. The Dutch have an impressive goalkeeper in Sari Van Veenendaal, who has posted two straight shutouts, but U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher has proven her nerve and ability in three straight 2-1 victories in knockout play.

“We’re the underdog. I’m fine with that,” Dutch coach Sarina Wiegman said at a news conference on Saturday.

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Wiegman disagrees with the loudly trumpeted notion that the U.S. women have crossed the line between self-assurance and arrogance. They talk a good game and Wiegman acknowledged they back it up. “I just think that America has a lot of confidence and I think that’s OK because they have a very good status,” she said. “They have won many tournaments and they’re in the top all the time. It’s also a little bit part of the culture, I think. That’s just the way it is.”

Rapinoe has drawn the most vitriol because of her advocacy for LGBTQ rights, her profane declaration in an old interview that recently resurfaced that she wouldn’t visit the White House if the team is invited, and because she doesn’t place her right hand over her heart during the national anthem. Her insistence a few days ago she’s deeply patriotic in her own way drew scorn from outsiders but not from her teammates. They care most that she does her job on the field, which she has.

Morgan, perhaps the most popular player, also drew barbs when she mimed drinking a cup of tea, pinky-up, after scoring against England. She explained it as a tribute to “Game of Thrones” actress Sophie Turner, but that didn’t silence the jabs. She dared to have fun, to display personality, in a game that’s supposed to be entertaining. Oh, the horror.

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Social-media eruptions have overshadowed issues that deserve attention, including the performances by some of the Americans’ 11 World Cup first-timers. Rose Lavelle’s midfield magic could be an asset for years. Defender Abby Dahlkemper and midfielder Sam Mewis have been poised and impressive. There is a lot to celebrate.

Rapinoe said Saturday she understood why the team is perceived as haughty. They’re strong, powerful women, qualities that aren’t universally accepted or respected. FIFA, the sport’s global governing body, showed the women in the tournament so little respect that it scheduled the final of two major men’s events on Sunday, the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the Copa America.

“I think we have a particular lightness about us, as well, that people maybe take as aloofness or thinking that we’re too good or whatever. But I think so much of what we have to shoulder all of the time is heavy,” said Rapinoe, one of the players who filed a lawsuit against U.S. Soccer in March for institutionalized gender discrimination.

“It’s no secret that we’re the leaders in the women’s game in a lot of different issues — equality, pay equality, gender issues. And just at large our team has been very open and very willing to get into any sort of equality fight. And so when we get the chance to play and showcase our skill set and be free on the field, we work hard and play hard. We think the game should be played with exuberance. The whole point of the game is to score a goal.

“This comes every four years. Nothing’s guaranteed. Some players might only play in one. You’re lucky if you get to play in multiple. So this is the most incredible stage you could ever be on as a football player, and we are going to enjoy it.”

Coach Jill Ellis was the target of a failed player rebellion two years ago. On Sunday, she will guide many of those players toward history. “They have a closeness that you’re optimistic to have as a coach but sometimes it doesn’t come to fruition. This is a very, very close group and I think that’s been a big part of what’s empowered them to be at this point, and obviously we’ve got talented players as well. You can’t do it without that,” she said.

“I think we’ve come through a tough road in terms of the teams we’ve played to get to this point, so for sure they’re battle-tested. But what I love about this group is they’re locked on and they’re still hungry.”

helene.elliott@latimes.com

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Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen


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