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5 Key Takeaways From the New Netflix World Cup Series Under Pressure

9 minute read

For fans of the United States women’s national soccer team (USWNT), the moment from this summer was excruciating. On August 6, during a round of 16 elimination game at the World Cup in Sydney, U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher got a hand on a penalty shot from Sweden’s Lina Hurtig. Naeher had to save it to keep America’s hopes alive. The ball bounced up in the air, and Naeher scrambled on the ground to slap it back before the whole of the ball crossed the goal line. At first, she appeared successful. But then video replay found the ball did in fact make it over, by about millimeter.

Forget about a three-peat. Instead, the USWNT would suffer its earliest exit ever at a World Cup.

In Under Pressure, the new behind-the-scenes Netflix series, which dropped December 12, that follows the USWNT in the months leading up to this year’s World Cup, and trails the squad down under as the team chased a third consecutive title, Naeher’s near-save is rendered cinematic. If still tortuous. 

The Hozier song “Who We Are” plays over shots of one fan saying “I can’t watch” before Hurtig’s attempt and a spectator in the stands chewing on her fingernails. The action is slowed as Hurtig approaches the ball. Hozier sings “quietly, it slips through your fingers, love / falling from you, drop by stop” as Naeher tries to make the save.

Then the cameras pan to a shot of the other 10 U.S. players on the field, watching Naeher’s desperate try for a save. Almost every player, thinking Naeher got it done, is celebrating. Only one player, co-captain Lindsey Horan—who was standing smack in the middle of the line—has a sad, stoic look. She's a veteran leader who’s seen enough to know, it seems, that her World Cup was about to end.

“The international game, it’s such a nice style of football,” Horan, who plays for the French club Lyon, says later in the show’s fourth and final episode, in a spot-on postmortem. “You’re playing these little tiny passes here and there. They’re so confident on the ball. They’re so technical.  We need to progress in this possession style of play. We need better coaches. We need better youth development. We need more investment there.” 

Or the Americans will be left behind.

The U.S. Women’s World Cup Team watches during penalties against Sweden.
The U.S. Women’s World Cup Team watches during penalties against Sweden.Courtesy of Netflix

With the World Cup a few months behind us and the Olympics on the horizon next summer, Under Pressure—which is produced by TIME Studios and Words + Pictures in association with FIFA and directed by two-time Emmy Award winner Rebecca Gitlitz, TIME Studios head of sports and executive producer—debuts at an opportune time. As the USWNT, under recently hired head coach Emma Hayes, preps for Paris and beyond, the lessons of the 2023 World Cup loom large. Here are five key takeaways:

Life on the bubble is brutal. While the documentary contains key interviews with stars like Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, it really hones in on the “bubble” players who weren’t a lock to make the final roster and shows you the incredible stress they endure. “Every single day, you have somebody who is knocking on your door,” says forward Lynn Williams. “Waiting for you to mess up, waiting for you to get injured, waiting for you to fail. So that they can come in and take your spot. It’s psychotic. But I can’t believe I get to be a part of it.”

The Under Pressure crew had incredible access to players like Williams and Kristie Mewis and Alyssa Thompson on the day that former head coach Vlatko Andonovski delivered his verdict on their World Cup status. You see players staring at their phones all day. “Is this a joke?” Mewis wonders at one point. “It’s 4 … Put me out of my misery.” Andonovski FaceTimes her with the good news. Mewis takes a deep breath before picking up the phone. She made it. Don’t be shocked if you tear up along with her.  

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Andonovski needed to use his bench. Once the U.S. team got to the World Cup and underperformed, Andonovski came under fire, especially after the second group-stage game, which the Americans drew with the Netherlands, 1-1. Despite a deep bench of talent, Andonovski used a single substitute during the game, inserting Rose Lavelle into the game at the start of the second half: he didn’t turn to any fresh legs down the stretch. Pundits pilloried Andonovski for that move, but Under Pressure confirms that it vexed the players as well. “I knew there was a possibility I could be going into the game,” says Williams. “Then as the time keeps ticking on, you’re like, ‘Is it going to happen? Is it not going to happen?’ There was that moment of like, ‘I don’t know where my role is just yet.’ That’s where it’s hard. You’re trying to make sure you’re giving your whole energy to the 11 people that are on the field. But you’re also trying to stay ready if my name was going to be called. And it wasn’t.”  

After scoring three goals in a shutout win against Vietnam in the opener, the U.S. managed to net just one the rest of the tournament. “I think it hurt a lot of players’ confidence,” Morgan says. “Especially the ones who didn’t play who were told they were going to come in. I think that was definitely a tough game for a lot of players who didn’t see the field.”

Fans watch the U.S. Women's World Cup Team.
Fans watch the U.S. Women’s World Cup Team.Courtesy of Netflix

Carli Lloyd will call it like she sees it. After a 0-0 tie in the final game of the group stage, in which Portugal almost eliminated the U.S. with a late chance that bounced off the post, former USWNT star Carli Lloyd, in her role as analyst for Fox Sports’ studio coverage of the World Cup, ripped the team on the air. 

Lloyd took offense to players dancing and celebrating after a scoreless draw. “I have never witnessed something like that,” Lloyd said. “There’s a difference between being respectful of the fans and saying hello to your family. But to be dancing, smiling? I mean, the player of the match was that post. You are lucky to not be going home right now.” She called the effort “very lackluster and uninspiring.” She suggested that after 2020, the team’s culture shifted away from a ruthless desire to win. “I think there's just a lot of off-the-field things that are happening,” she said. 

Lloyd’s remarks sparked debates and social media buzz going into the round of 16 matchup versus Sweden. The Under Pressure crew wisely pounced, securing an interview with Lloyd, the newsmaker of the moment, in Sydney and getting cameras on the Fox set during the Sweden game. 

“I think I’m the only U.S. women’s national team player that has been this open and honest about what I’m seeing,” Lloyd says in the show. “And I think for so long, it’s fluff and it’s saying what we all want to hear. My job is to say what I feel. And I’m not afraid to say what I feel. And sure, maybe I lose some people along the way. Or some of the players maybe get upset. But I’ve had so many people reach out to me and say, ‘You’re right.’ And ‘facts.’ And ‘thank you for speaking up.’”  

Zecira Musovic is a problem. Pundits offered a variety of explanations for USWNT’s World Cup shortcomings–Andonovski’s tactics (or lack of them), the team’s distracted mental state, underperformance from Morgan up front, giving in to pressure during the penalty shootout with Sweden. But Under Pressure reminds viewers that we largely overlooked one key reason for the team’s demise: Swedish keeper Zecira Musovic.

“She’s almost unbeatable tonight,” an announcer said as Musovic made yet another diving save against the U.S. It wasn’t hyperbole. The Americans had a host of chances to score. But Musovic was an acrobatic barrier. You can come up with a brilliant strategy. Sometimes, however, a red-hot keeper makes all the difference. Sweden reached the semifinals at the World Cup. At the Olympics and other international competitions going forward, the USWNT won’t want to run into Musovic again.

Alyssa Thompson and the U.S. Women’s World Cup Team.
Alyssa Thompson and the U.S. women’s national team.Courtesy of Netflix

Alyssa Thompson is the future. One of the show’s main characters is forward Alyssa Thompson, 19, the recent high school graduate who plays for Angel City FC of the National Women’s Soccer League. “I just want to pull her aside and be like, ‘You’re doing great, sweetie,’” says Morgan. “Because she is. She missed her prom for an Angel City game. She’s crushing it.” (Thompson actually showed up late to the prom.)

Under Pressure had cameras at her graduation party. “People will be like, ‘You know what the best night of my life was? Senior graduation,’” one of Thompson’s friends tells her at the party. “And yours will be like, ‘Playing in a World Cup.’ It’s just going to be a little bit different.”

Thompson, who became the first teenager to make the U.S. World Cup roster since 1995, played only 17 minutes across two games at this World Cup. Still, she gained valuable experience for the next decade, or more, to come. Under Pressure makes clear that this new crop of players, like Thompson and Trinity Rodman, still has ample chance to make its mark in the post-Rapinoe, post-Morgan era. There’s too much talent, too much to live up to, for the U.S. to accept pushover status. “How we silence the critics going forward now, in this moment,” says former USWNT player Tobin Heath near the end of the series, “is we go to an Olympics, and we win an Olympics.”

Correction, December 12

A photo caption in the original version of this article misstated which team Alyssa Thompson was standing with. It was the U.S. women's national team, not the U.S. women's World Cup team.

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