The United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) was defeated 2-1 by England at Wembley in an international friendly that spotlighted both the increasing popularity of women’s football and its failures.
Billed as a match-up between the world and European champions, both teams had displayed impressive form in recent months – the USWNT arrived on a 21-game unbeaten streak and England on its own 23-game unbeaten run that included winning Euro 2022.
But the build-up to the match was dominated by matters off the pitch as, back in the US, women’s professional soccer had been left reeling from an independent investigation that found systemic abuse and misconduct within the sport.
“It’s been an extremely difficult week for everybody and I’m proud of the players for even being on the field and playing the game,” US head coach Vltako Andonovski said after the match, according to the BBC. “It wasn’t easy.
“I applaud their bravery and I applaud their fearless mentality and relentlessness. Once again they showed that nothing can stop them playing the game that they love. I’m very proud of them and hoping we never have to go through that again.”
Before kickoff, both teams came together, holding a banner that read, “Protect the Players,” while the Wembley Arch was illuminated with teal light to show support for the victims of abuse.
“First and foremost, if the players aren’t protected, then you don’t have a game, you don’t have anything. So for us to put that at the forefront of such an important night and game was really amazing and powerful for all of us,” American soccer star Megan Rapinoe said after the game, per Sky Sports.
Throughout the match, both teams also wore teal armbands in a further display of support.
“To take the time to do that, get the armbands – I think they were flown in from California and a little tight on some people, I’m happy I have a skinny arm - just an incredible show by all of us, some things are bigger than the game and we were able to put that on display,” Rapinoe added.
“Obviously the report came out about our league but … it’s probably a global issue as well. To anyone in the stands tonight who has been affected by it, obviously all the players, to just show that kind of support on a night like this.”
And the night showcased the increasing reach of women’s football as 76,893 fans gathered at Wembley Stadium – the highest attended friendly match in USWNT history – to watch both sides beginning to fine tune their preparations for next year’s World Cup.
England took the lead after just nine minutes, as Beth Mead played a ball into the box that eluded US defender Alana Cook and landed at the feet of Lauren Hemp, who guided the ball into the goal.
Although England continued to threaten, the American defense held firm and the USWNT tied the scores less than 20 minutes later as Sophia Smith capitalized on a mistake to fire the ball past England goalkeeper Mary Earps.
“[Smith] seemed like she made a name for herself. But we can’t forget she’s 21 years old,” US head coach Vltako Andovnoski told media after the game, according to CBS Sports.
“To come in an environment like this, and to be a difference maker … it just shows the potential that she has. I think that we haven’t seen the best of her [yet].
“These are games that will expedite Soph’s development, and I’m excited to see what she’s going to look like six months from now, nine months from now.”
But England restored its lead soon after when the VAR intervened to award the home side a penalty after a high foot from Hailie Mace caught Lucy Bronze in the head. Georgia Stanway converted for a 2-1 lead.
And the free flowing first half seemed to show no signs of abating as Smith opened up the English defense for Rapinoe who fed Trinity Rodman for a goal. But once again, the VAR intervened in England’s favor, ruling that Smith had been fractionally offside in the move.
The second half was an altogether cagier affair as England missed two opportunities to extend its lead, allowing the USWNT a glimmer of hope.
When the referee awarded a penalty to the Americans for handball with just 10 minutes remaining, that glimmer widened a little but replays overturned the decision and England held on to close out its first win against the reigning world champions since 2017.
“You are the best team in the world when you have won the World Cup. We haven’t,” England head coach Sarina Wiegman told reporters, per Reuters. “We are in a good place, but there are so many good countries.
“We just have to do what we can, control, stick together and communicate with each other at all times. We need to have the freedom to make our own choices in the game. I think we are doing well in that.”