Extra Time: The Unsung Talent of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team

10 minute read

This story first appeared in Extra Time, our pop-up newsletter about the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Get it in your inbox by subscribing here.

A few weeks back I flew out to Southern California for USWNT media day, held at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson. During the last two World Cups, played in Canada and France, respectively, New York City hosted media day before the send-off game in New Jersey. This time, however, the pre-World Cup training camp and send-off affair relocated to the West Coast, a few hours closer to Australia and New Zealand, where the tournament will take place.

Media day gives reporters a chance to spend some time with USWNT players in the lead-up to the World Cup. Lindsey Horan, Alex Morgan, and Megan Rapinoe held a joint press conference. U.S. Soccer officials then rotated in the rest of the players, four at a time, for 25-minute roundtable discussions with journalists. During some sessions, I hopped around from player to player, listening for interesting nuggets and insights, lobbing a question or two. For others, I set up shop at one player’s table, for a little more depth. When Trinity Rodman speaks, for example, you listen.

(We’ll roll out a Rodman feature next week.)

These sessions helped inform one of our TIME pieces published this week, an introduction to the 14 World Cup rookies on the U.S roster. While reading up on the players during the cross-country flight to media day—and in hearing them answer questions—a certain group stood out to me: the old-time first-timers, players in their 30s who have been putting in the work for a while now but have never before made it to the tournament.

Veteran stars like Morgan and Rapinoe have secured their legacies. Young phenoms like Rodman and Sophia Smith and Alyssa Thompson all possess tantalizing superstar potential. These big names will likely attract a bunch of the World Cup attention, for good reason. But here’s to three first-time World Cup players – Sofia Huerta, Kristie Mewis, and Lynn Williams – who like so many Americans, have had to wait their turn. They’ve faced rejection but still persevered. They’ve overcome injuries or mental setbacks or other disappointments. They show that work and experience still count for so much. They’re the mid-career professionals finally receiving that promotion that eluded them seasons after season. Now it’s their time. Some words on each:

Sofia Huerta: She grew up in Idaho, far from the elite youth leagues of, say, California. Still, she earned a soccer scholarship to Santa Clara University, and since her father immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, she played some games for the Mexican national team. Despite that positive experience, and even though the U.S. wasn’t really considering her for a position, she declined to pursue further opportunities in Mexico in order to chase her USWNT dreams.

Huerta, 30, finally received a U.S. call-up in 2017, but the USWNT coaching staff encouraged her to switch to positions, from forward to defense, on her club team so she could gain more experience playing there. Such a switch would offer a clearer path to making the 2019 World Cup team. She was traded from Chicago to Houston in 2018, under the impression she’d play outside back with the Dash. She never did. She was left off the 2019 World Cup roster.

She fell into a funk before deciding to take control of her own narrative. She played in Australia’s W-League (now known as the A-League) during two NWSL offseasons, insisting that it be written into her contracts that the team allow her to play defense. Houston traded her to OL Reign in Seattle, where she’s played outside back the past three seasons and was a finalist for defender of the year in 2022.

Kristie Mewis: From 2013 to 2017, Mewis was traded five times in the NWSL, bouncing from FC Kansas City to the Boston Breakers to the Washington Spirit to the Chicago Red Stars then finally the Houston Dash. She had fallen off the national-team radar after making 15 appearances in 2013 and 2014. Then she tore her ACL during a game in May 2018.

The injury, however, wound up being a “blessing in disguise,” she told Goal.com in 2020. “I had to look within myself and decide where I was going with my career,” Mewis said. “Am I going to continue being average or am I going to try to push for my dreams … I feel like it just woke me up a little bit.”

After rehab and a strong 2019 season, she received her first national-team call-up in five years. She made the Tokyo Olympics along with her younger sister, Sam, a 2019 World Cup champion. Now she’s reached her first World Cup, at 32, though Sam won’t be there, as she’s still recovering from a knee injury.

Lynn Williams: Williams, the NJ/NY Gotham FC forward, thought she was good enough to make the 2019 World Cup team. Instead, she watched on television as her friends took home the title in France. She did make the Tokyo Olympic team—as an alternate. “Like, thanks for wanting me but not wanting me,” says Williams, 30. The International Olympic Committee, however, expanded rosters before the Games, in case players had to miss time because of COVID-19. Williams made the trip, scored a goal, and notched an assist in a surprise quarterfinal start against the Netherlands. But there were no fans there to cheer her on. No family. “It wasn’t necessarily the Olympics of my dreams,” she says.

Crowds in Australia and New Zealand, on the other hand, will roar. Patience may pay off, for Williams and her fellow veteran rooks.

Africa’s upstarts

Seven nations will be making their women’s World Cup debut: Haiti, Morocco, Panama, Portugal, the Republic of Ireland, Vietnam, and Zambia. The Zambian team, the Copper Queens (amazing name), is ranked 77th in the world, and the Queens just stunned No. 2 Germany, 3-2, on German soil, in a July 7 pre-World Cup friendly. Both sides suited up the key players who will see action at the World Cup; Zambia led 2-0 going into injury time before Germany scored a pair of quick goals to salvage, it seemed, a draw. But Zambia took advantage of a poor Germany throw-in to find star Barbra Banda streaking down the field; she scored in the 112th minute, her second goal of the game, to seal the win.

Banda, who plays professionally in China, could not play in last year’s African Cup of Nations due to elevated testosterone levels. But FIFA has cleared her to play in this World Cup. Six Zambian players compete for the Red Arrows, a club team in that country sponsored by the Zambian air force. Three suit up for the Green Buffaloes, the army squad. In Group C, the Copper Queens will face Japan on July 22 at 3 a.m. E.T. Games against Spain (July 26, 3:30 a.m. E.T) and Costa Rica (July 31, 3:00 a.m. E.T.) will follow.

Recent news, however, threatens an otherwise feel-good, surprise World Cup story. Starting goalkeeper Hazel Nali will miss the World Cup due to an ACL injury. Knee injuries will keep several key players from around the world out of the competition. (We’ll have a piece on this sad phenomenon next week.)

More seriously, the Guardian reported on July 8 that Zambian coach Bruce Mwape has been investigated over allegations of sexual misconduct. Mwape has denied wrongdoing.

Recommended reading

Five other countries dealing with controversies ahead of the World Cup. (TIME).

World Cup ticket sales are lagging in New Zealand. One sponsor is offering 20,000 freebies. (Reuters).

One observer’s World Cup uniform rankings. (The Athletic). Close your eyes if you don’t want a spoiler … the United States, New Zealand, and Italy got the highest marks, while Denmark and France scored the worst. Rubbish. Take it from this fashionista: Ireland’s kits are the best, Germany’s the worst. Case closed.)

Every World Cup player: by country, by position, and club team info. (Olympics.com)

Broken records

According to the Action Network, a sports betting and media company, a few notable—and random—World Cup records may be set or extended in the coming weeks.

  • South Korea’s Casey Phair will probably become the youngest player to ever appear in a women’s World Cup. Ifeanyi Chiejine of Nigeria was 16 years and 35 days old when she appeared against South Korea in 1999; Phair turned 16 on June 27 and she will be 16 years and 27 days on July 25, when South Korea faces Morocco.The U.S.-born teen has a Korean mother and an American father. She’s also the first player of mixed heritage to represent South Korea at a men’s or women’s World Cup.
  • Onome Ebi of Nigeria and Christine Sinclair of Canada are tied for a record that speaks to both their lasting greatness, and their relative lack of team success at World Cups: they each have lost 10 World Cup matches. (Nigeria’s Florence Omagbemi is the third member of the 10-loss club, but she’s not playing this year.) Ebi, 40, is making her sixth World Cup appearance: Nigeria, which reached the Round of 16 four years ago, will compete in a “Group of Death,” Group B, against Sinclair and Olympic champion Canada, World Cup co-host Australia, and Ireland. Sinclair, also 40 and making her sixth World Cup appearance, has scored more international goals than anyone in history. One of these players may take the loss lead, at least temporarily, on July 20, when Canada and Nigeria face off at 10:30 p.m. E.T. in their World Cup opener.
  • No winner of the Golden Ball, awarded to the best player at a World Cup, has gone on to win a World Cup title as a coach. Hege Riise, of Norway, could become the first: she won the Golden Ball in 1995 for the champion Gresshoppene (Grasshoppers, another awesome nickname), and is leading her team, ranked No. 12 in the world, in Group A play against co-host New Zealand, Switzerland, and the Philippines.
  • For some reason, no country is more likely to draw than China. China has played in more tie games (7) than any other team in women’s World Cup history. Denmark, England, and Haiti will all try to score more goals than China, not the same number, in Group D.

  • Parting thought

    On July 21 in Portland, Ore, the Sports Bra—a women’s sports-themed establishment that opened in 2022—and the Portland Community Football Club are hosting a USA-Vietnam viewing party in Pioneer Courthouse Square. Bend It Like Beckham is screening at 2 p.m. local time, and the 6 p.m. kickoff follows. Food and drinks, including selections from Vietnamese women-owned businesses, will be available. If you can’t make the long, pricey trip to Australia and New Zealand—it’s really far, and really expensive—but are looking for a fun watch experience in the United States, seems you can do worse than making a less long, and less pricey, trip to Portland.

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    Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com