Yes, women’s soccer can be frustrating. Two U.S. leagues have disappeared in the past 12 years, and the third is redefining “low profile.” Fans (and sometimes players) argue on social media about the strangest stuff. (This 18-month-old Alex Morgan dis was favorited tonight.) The U.S. national team sometimes looks like it was selected five years ago — the tactics sometimes look as if they were drawn up 15 years ago.
Let’s forget all that for a minute and back up.
One bias I’ve always had is for the players who fought their way through the Dark Ages of the mid-2000s. Kevin Parker wrote about the ones who passed through Washington, and Jen Cooper covered it in her Mixxed Zone podcast about “the 99ers and the 90 percent.” The “90 percent” refers to the players who aren’t national team stars but make a pro league competitive, providing challenges that the national team players need to stay sharp. And without them, you don’t have local teams that give fans a chance to see these players in person more than once every couple of years.
Some players don’t have a sense of that shared struggle. Some do. Tonight at the SoccerPlex, they did.
Start with the autographs. I don’t really “get” autographs, to be honest, and I’ve seen a few fans who are a little too demanding, insulting players who aren’t the big stars. But you have to be impressed when players sign for as many fans as possible, trying to make that connection. Tonight, Carli Lloyd from the visiting Dash signed a lot. So did Meghan Klingenberg. So did Spirit stars like Ashlyn Harris and, I think, Ali Krieger.
Lloyd even signed one of the cockroach banners the Spirit Squadron held up in reference to … something I missed on Twitter. I didn’t quite get it, but Lloyd did.
Then there’s this:
Typo in Jen’s tweet — she has ALS, sometimes called Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Lloyd did indeed make time to go over to see her. So did Krieger.
But this fan got much more. As Spirit players left the field one by one, they went over to her. She wound up with as many eight players at a time all chatting with her. She may not have full control over her body any more, but she had a huge smile.
The Spirit players got her up out of her chair for a picture. Then Crystal Dunn, all five-foot-nothing of her, carefully placed her back in the chair before everyone started smiling and laughing again. If laughter’s the best medicine, then this woman is going to pull a Stephen Hawking and live with ALS for decades to come.
In case you forgot, Dunn also did this tonight …
And she scored twice more in the 3-1 win, including a header off a corner kick. Again, she is not tall.
Back to the postgame — I’m in awe of athletes and other celebrities who meet ailing people. Imagine what it’s like to be presented with a person who has been told he or she might live much longer. Now you’re responsible for creating a magical moment. No pressure.
When you see the way these players interact with fans, you see how special they are in ways beyond their skills. It’s almost unfair that these people who have been blessed with talent and determination also have the social graces and kind hearts to make others feel special as well.
And you can see it in how they interact with each other. Houston defender Niki Cross played her final game tonight, and in deference to the time she spent with the Spirit, she was honored with a pregame bouquet courtesy of Ashlyn Harris, who has been close with Cross since they were teammates in the early days of WPS. Fans chanted her name when she came onto the field as a second-half sub.
So women’s soccer is in that sweet spot right now — popular enough to have sought-after stars but still maintaining a sense that we’re all in this together.
You may not guess it from Twitter, but I’m an optimist. I think women’s soccer can maintain this spirit even as the sport matures and the mainstream media picks up the tactical and technical debates the hard-core fans and bloggers are doing now.
The players can handle it. They want to be pros. They deserve to be pros. They deserve the attention not just of the autograph hounds or the pundits who turn up out of the woodwork every four years, but the everyday sports fan.
So I left the SoccerPlex feeling pretty good about the sport. Both teams played dynamic, attacking soccer. They didn’t take advantage of the referee’s lack of attention. It was a great show with a wonderful display of heart.
Tomorrow, we’ll get back to the criticism and debate. It’s all meant to be constructive. We all care. We all see something special in this sport, and tonight reminded us why.