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Double standard? Players, fans push back on criticism of U.S. women's soccer

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U.S. vs. Netherlands in Women's World Cup final
Megan Rapinoe of the U.S. (right) celebrates with teammates Alex Morgan and Samantha Mewis after scoring her team's first goal during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup final on Sunday in Lyon, France.
Richard Heathcote | Getty Images

You've probably seen the video posted all over Twitter. 

It's U.S. women's soccer star forward Alex Morgan pretending to sip a cup of tea — pinkie in the air and all — after scoring a goal that clinched a World Cup semifinal win against England. 

If you've seen that goal, you've likely also read or heard criticism of the U.S. women's team at this year's World Cup: that they're too cocky, disrespectful or childish. 

The players answered their critics by winning the tournament on Sunday, beating the Netherlands 2-0 in France for the team's fourth World Cup title.

Soccer fan Melanee Meegan of Minneapolis
Melanee Meegan of Minneapolis went to the Black Hart in St. Paul on Sunday to cheer for the U.S. women's soccer team in the World Cup final. Meegan traveled to France to attend four of the Americans' matches earlier in the tournament.
Sophia Sura | MPR News

As for fans' take on the criticism? Those gathered to watch Sunday's game at The Black Hart of St. Paul, a soccer bar near Allianz Field, weren't buying it.

Katelin Grote of Minneapolis said the criticism shows the double standard women face. 

"I don't know. You don't say that, like, 'LeBron James is being so cocky,' " she said. "He's celebrating because he's the best. It's a level of respect (for women) that's really different and really frustrating."

Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe are two of the team's lightning rods, and they finished tied with England's Ellen White for the most goals scored in the World Cup tournament, with six each. (Morgan and Rapinoe also had three assists.)

Jeff Rueter of St. Paul writes about soccer for The Athletic. He agreed that the women's team faced criticism in a way that men's teams do not. For them, success is a double-edged sword. 

Soccer fans pack the Black Hart of St. Paul
Soccer fans pack the Black Hart, near Allianz Field, to cheer on the U.S. women against the Netherlands in the World Cup on Sunday.
Sophia Sura | MPR News

"Every single time the U.S. makes a run like this, people take it more seriously," he said. "You'll see even, like, the jock talk TV shout-shows saying, you know, 'Let's talk about the goals.' And you're seeing the bad side of it, which is the controversy that comes up every time they celebrate. You know, some of those ugly things, where clearly they wouldn't do that if a man was celebrating in the same manner."

In their first match of the World Cup, the U.S. faced Thailand and shut out the Thai team 13-O. They faced some criticism for running up the score, but Rueter sees it differently.  

"It would have been more disrespectful if they'd just started running passing drills through their defenders," he said. "And if, you know, at 6-0 or something, they just held onto the ball or they kept kicking it out of bounds ... I do believe that it's more of a sign of respect when you're actually willing to keep playing the game as if it's as big a game as you've ever played."

In that Thailand game, the U.S. women's team scored more goals in that one game than the U.S. men's team has scored in all of their appearances at the World Cup since 2006 combined. 

And that's significant because the women's team wasn't just playing for the World Cup title. They're in the middle of a legal fight for equal pay. 

Soccer fans A.J. Boehmer and Maggie Druschel of St. Paul
A.J. Boehmer and Maggie Druschel of St. Paul watch the Women's World Cup final at Black Hart.
Sophia Sura | MPR News

Earlier this year, 28 members of the team sued U.S. Soccer for what they call "institutionalized gender discrimination." They allege that not only are they paid significantly less than their male counterparts — they also get the short straw when it comes to the resources that are put into coaching, facilities and travel arrangements.

Though their legal fight is still far from over, after Sunday the players now have one more major victory under their belts. 

Critics of the women's team have said that their legal fight, their political comments and their celebrations have been a distraction from what they attention should be on: the game. 

But Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center at the University of Minnesota, disagrees. 

Alex Morgan of the U.S. celebrates by "sipping tea"
Alex Morgan of the U.S. celebrates by "sipping tea" with teammate Rose Lavelle after scoring her team's second goal during a 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup semifinal against England on July 2 in Lyon, France.
Maja Hitij | Getty Images

"They're very savvy politically, they're very savvy in terms of media coverage and the narratives that they help create," she said. "So the fact that they emphasize the lawsuit when they can — I mean, what better moment for them to bring their case to the world and to the American people than to do it during the World Cup when they're winning. ... And this is my point about, 'Isn't this a distraction?' And it wasn't ... a distraction. If anything, it fueled them, and then they went out and won. ... They just seemed so comfortable in their bodies and comfortable in who they are."

For Kane, that attitude isn't an problem. It's a strength.

"I think of cocky as a really — I see that as a positive term. They are cocky and they have swagger. And if they didn't have that kind of confidence in themselves and ... a never-back-down mentality, they wouldn't be world champions," she said. "You have to have that level of confidence in yourself. You have to have that level of swagger and just short of arrogance on your side to win at that level." 

For all the critics that rose up during this World Cup, the U.S. team also has solidified and expanded its fan base. 

The Black Hart of St. Paul
The Black Hart of St. Paul, a soccer and LGBTQ+ bar near Allianz Field, hosted a Women's World Cup watch party on Sunday.
Sophia Sura | MPR News

Back at the Black Hart of St. Paul, Katelin Grote, who identifies as a queer woman, said it's been powerful to see Rapinoe dominate the tournament as an openly lesbian player. 

The owner of the bar, Wes Burdine, also noted that representation is important. He said fans appreciate how outspoken and confident the players are.    

"I think that ... Megan Rapinoe or Heather O'Reilly or Ali Krieger are really great about standing up for what they believe in," he said. "Soccer is never just about soccer. ... Especially someone like Megan Rapinoe, who leads the way in trying to make sure that she uses her platform to bring people together and stand up for people. I think that's brilliant. And you can see the way that fans respond to it."