How the USWNT’s millennial, Gen Z stars find common ground

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Even within a globally recognized U.S. women’s national team roster that is filled with celebrity superstars and World Cup winners, older co-workers can sometimes seem a bit odd to their younger colleagues.

“Some of the songs they play, [what] they’re all listening to, I have no idea what they are. They sound like … what my parents listen to,” said 22-year-old Sophia Smith, who was once given a hard time by more senior players for not recognizing a song from ’90s rapper Tupac. “Or they’ll talk about the technology they had, like the CD.”

Smith, a forward for the NWSL‘s Portland Thorns, has never used a CD player. She’s never gone to a World Cup, either.

The same could be said (at least regarding the international tournament) for the San Diego Wave‘s 23-year-old Naomi Girma. In preparation for her first-ever World Cup, the up-and-coming center-back found it amusing that veteran Alex Morgan utilized Mapquest, a website that was popular for printable driving directions in the early-2000s, in her younger days for travel.

“We were joking about MapQuest … she would pull out the actual map to get to games,” Girma said with a laugh.

At times perplexed by those older than them — Smith admitted that she “won’t watch any movie that’s ‘grainy,'” seemingly referencing a time before high-definition broadcasting — both Smith and Girma represent a broader youth movement for the USWNT.

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Of the 23 players who will be heading to the World Cup that begins on July 20 in Australia and New Zealand, a noteworthy total of 14 will take part in the tournament for the first time. Of those 14, half are 25 or younger, which means that the back-to-back winners will rely on the exuberance of youth rather than the wisdom of experience.

In the 2019 competition, the USWNT had 11 debutants, and in 2015, there were only eight. Both teams also had fewer players who were 25 or younger.

Aiming for an unprecedented third consecutive World Cup title and fifth overall, manager Vlatko Andonovski and his players met with media in Carson, Calif., earlier this month to discuss the presence of youthful talents within their roster, the key veterans who will be guiding them along the way, and most importantly, about building and maintaining an intergenerational link.

Finding common ground, on the field

Eighteen-year-old Angel City FC winger Alyssa Thompson, the youngest name on the USWNT roster, finds it surreal that she gets to be teammates with her heroes.

“I can’t believe I’m playing with players that I’ve looked up to my whole life,” said the teenager, who was selected first overall in the NWSL draft just months earlier — the first No. 1 pick ever to be selected out of high school.

Set to be one of the possible breakout stars of the World Cup, Thompson was just 17 when she made her USWNT debut last October in a 2-1 friendly loss to England. In her first camp with the national team, Thompson remembers being in awe of the soccer celebrities around her.

“When I came in, every single player I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s her in real life,'” she said of her thoughts about training with the best in the country. “Literally every single player, I was like, ‘Whoa, I can’t believe I’m here.'”

Although Thompson also admitted to finding it a little strange that some of her teammates grew up without cell phones, she didn’t seem to notice much of a difference between everyone once a ball was in play.

“You can’t really tell on the field.”

Smith agreed, noting that creating trust happens naturally.

“You come into this environment and it’s so intense and it’s so hard. I think you have no choice but to kind of lean on your teammates and rely on them,” said the Thorns star about building connections, regardless of age. “Also, we spend so much time together in these camps. It’s every day. So you just get to know each other. I think we all have a common goal and that unites us and brings us together.”

Much of that unity is thanks to the openness and support of their veteran teammates.

For Trinity Rodman, a 21-year-old forward for the Washington Spirit, a high-profile figure like 37-year-old Megan Rapinoe has been a meaningful source for pre-World Cup advice.

“I’ve been talking to Pinoe a lot and she’s just very open to being realistic and not sugarcoating anything with me,” Rodman said. “She says it’s a test, and the biggest thing that she kind of told me is you’re here for a reason, do you, and if you stray away from that, you’re not going to perform the way you want to.”

Morgan, a three-time participant in the World Cup along with Rapinoe and Kelley O’Hara, has also been a vital mentor for the younger group of players.

“Every day in camp, Alex is always kind of taking me under her wing, helping me, explaining things to me,” Smith said. “She’s someone that I’ve looked up to my whole life, so playing with her now, it’s the best thing ever and I can just watch how she goes through life and learn from it just day in and day out at practice.”

The kids are more than all right: ‘They’re really freaking good’

There’s an important but very, very obvious caveat about many of the unseasoned USWNT names: they’re incredible soccer players.

“I’m not worried about the inexperience,” said Andonovski. “In fact, I’m excited about the energy and the enthusiasm that the young players bring, the intensity and the drive as well. … I think that that will be one of our advantages.”

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Lawson: Rapinoe inclusion vital for younger USWNT players

Sebi Salazar and Sophie Lawson discuss the inclusion of Megan Rapinoe ahead of what will be her fourth World Cup for the USWNT.

Girma, who is expected to be one of the two starting central defenders for the USWNT, clinched the NWSL’s Rookie of the Year and Defender of the Year awards in 2022. Smith, a likely name in Andonovski’s XI on one of the wings, helped lead Portland to an NWSL championship last season, while also earning the league’s MVP award. Rodman, a strong option for minutes on the USWNT’s right wing, was the 2021 NWSL Rookie of the Year. Thompson, at just 18, is already securing accolades after recently being named the NWSL’s March/April Rookie of the Month.

“We do have a lot of people that are experiencing their first World Cup, but they’re really freaking good,” 28-year-old midfielder Rose Lavelle said. “So I have all the confidence in the world that they’re going to rise to the occasion.”

Players in their mid-20s waiting to make their World Cup debuts, such as full-back Emily Fox, defender Alana Cook and midfielders Savannah DeMelo and Ashley Sanchez, are also part of a wider generational change. For Cook, the OL Reign defender doesn’t believe that there will be any issues regarding the transition for the national team, thanks to those above them who have steered them in the right direction.

“This team has always gone through cycles and changes, and I think the incredible legacy of our older players is that they’ve made sure that everyone’s ready after them and around them. I think it’s always a next-woman-up system when it’s your turn, you have to be ready,” Cook said. “Younger players coming in isn’t a bad thing. I think it’s just a testament to how hard the veterans have worked to make sure that the things that we have, the culture, the work ethic, the tactics are ingrained in all of us.”

Maintaining a legacy

When looking at the veterans, there’s a sense of sustaining and advancing the national team leadership from those before them. O’Hara, getting ready for her fourth World Cup, remembers the impact that former USWNT players had in the early days of her international career.

“I feel like I had really great teammates around me that were veterans when I came onto this team, Abby Wambach, Heather Mitts, even Lauren Cheney [Holiday], she’s only a year older than me, but she had been on the team for a while,” O’Hara said. “I’ve always tried to [help] any newcomer to make them feel welcome, to make them feel comfortable because you got to be able to feel that way to be your best self.”

Midfielder Lindsey Horan, one of the leaders for the USWNT, has taken inspiration from Becky Sauerbrunn, the longtime captain who was ruled out of this summer’s tournament last month because of a foot injury she suffered in April.

“She’s my first call or my first text, and what she does on the field and what she did for me in Portland, it’s just like, I’m going to follow her lead and I want to be that type of role model for the young ones coming up and the new players here,” Horan said. “Trying to be the best role model and a voice for these young players coming in, anytime they need advice or questions.”

That imprint left goes far beyond the confines of the field as well.

For years, USWNT players clashed with U.S. Soccer as they sought equal pay and better working conditions. After filing a gender discrimination lawsuit in 2019, the case was settled in February 2022, providing a lump-sum payment to the players for $22 million. Months later, they then agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement, which included an equal split of World Cup bonuses between the USWNT and the U.S. men’s national team.

“We actually just got our first settlement check [from U.S. Soccer] in the mail a week ago,” Morgan said last week. “Naomi was joking that she didn’t get one and I was like, be grateful you just get equal.”

Older co-workers can be a bit odd in the eyes of their younger cohorts, but there’s no denying that they know a little more about the job. And don’t make the mistake of assuming that some of the USWNT veterans are out-of-touch retirees.

“Goodness gracious. Don’t age me,” Crystal Dunn said when asked how she can connect with someone as young as Thompson. “I’m still cool and hip, I try to tell all my teammates that. … I have a kid and all of a sudden people are like, ‘Oh, did you hear about TikTok, Crystal?'”

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