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The biggest victory for women’s soccer this year wasn’t the trophy the U.S. just lifted

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These women will most certainly not just stick to sports.

FBL-WC-2015-WOMEN-RALLY Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Four years ago, when the U.S. women hoisted the World Cup trophy above their heads in Vancouver, Canada, it felt like the culminating moment from a fairy tale. After 16 years of missing out and early struggles in the tournament, the U.S. dominated when it mattered most — earning the once-elusive third star on their crest.

Their World Cup victory welcomed in a new normal for women’s soccer. It was the most-watched soccer match of all time in the United States — men or women. Twenty-three players wrote their own script, swapping attacking firepower for a steady, brick-wall defense. Big-name sponsors came out of hiding to welcome these athletes into the fold. People flocked to NWSL matches to welcome their stars back home.

Truly, the magic of witnessing the U.S. seal their victory in 2015 was indescribable (although I tried to capture it here). It felt like there was nowhere to go but the stars.

Then, four years later, as I stepped off the train upon arriving in France in advance of the World Cup semifinals, I have to admit that I wasn’t sure I’d get close to feeling that way again. The world looked at the United States differently in 2019, and I was conscious of that as rowdy Americans in USA jerseys instantly surrounded me when I arrived in Lyon.

My celebrations were a bit more subdued during the final. Now, don’t get me wrong. I loudly cheered both goals while soaking it all in — and felt eternally grateful for getting to be there in the moment — but that same indescribable pride and joy wasn’t quite there.

That is, until one moment after the final whistle blew and the celebrations began.

As announcers welcomed FIFA president Gianni Infantino onto the field for the trophy ceremony, the crowd erupted in a boo that was just as loud as the one for Sepp Blatter in 2015, albeit for different reasons. The boos quickly subsided as fans began to shout in unison, “Equal pay! Equal pay! Equal pay!”

And it was then I felt that flutter in my heart. That tug at my soul.

It was then I realized that we weren’t just witnessing a soccer victory. We were watching 23 women potentially change the game forever.

Let me explain.

I’ve been critical of U.S. head coach Jill Ellis in the past, and even after this tournament, I still question some of her tactics. But I have nothing but praise for her decision to make Megan Rapinoe a USWNT captain leading into this World Cup tournament.

Reign FC fans know that Rapinoe is unabashedly herself both on and off the field. She’s a creative artist whose paintbrush sweeps as she moves the ball up the field. Off the field, she speaks her mind, taking a more outspoken stance on social justice issues than most athletes. She carries herself fearlessly, answering reporter questions with quick wit while never shying away from critical questions and conversations.

Putting a player like that front and center — and placing no boundaries on what topics she addressed or how she addressed them — set the tone for this team.

We had women who were unapologetic about playing the game their way, with their flair and attitude. They were proud. They celebrated with gusto. They were as brazen as they were talented.

Unexpectedly, we had Alex Morgan sipping tea during her goal celebration. Morgan has always been a player who appeared careful and calculated when shaping her public persona — which is understandable considering how many young girls track her every move. To see her break out of that mold was a surprise.

We also had a collective team of 23 players who were united in their fight for equal pay and equal treatment. For better or worse, the world has looked to the U.S. as the gold standard for women’s soccer investment. So when the U.S. women began to speak up for themselves and demand better from their federation, the world paid attention.

And the world began to finally notice other women fighting for the same ideals — players in Argentina, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Colombia, and beyond demanding their federations invest in the women’s game. This became a global fight.

During this World Cup, the narrative about this U.S. team wasn’t just about their play — although it was an impressive display. As the U.S. set records on the field, the world watched in record numbers. But on top of debating whether the U.S. could walk away with a back-to-back World Cup trophy, a new target had been placed on their back.

They set the tone with the celebrations in their opening 13-0 wallop on Thailand, which got them criticisms about sportsmanship. They continued with a cheeky tea-sipping reference in response to British tabloids questioning their arrogance. There were online fights with the U.S. president thrown in the middle. People questioned their patriotism.

They could have easily folded under all the extra pressure.

Instead, they took the reins and bulldozed their way to a World Cup title. As the whistle blew for the start of the World Cup final, it felt inevitable that the U.S. would win. But I didn’t realize how much that victory might change the course for women’s soccer.

It was no longer just their fight for equal pay. They now had a community holding them up.

Those “Equal pay” chants built and then echoed in the stadium. They continued on the sidewalks near the American Outlaws after-party (as seen above) and remained a part of the conversation when the women returned to U.S. soil. The topic has dominated media coverage and graced the lips of people like Sandra Bullock, who upon introducing the USWNT as the Best Team at the ESPY Awards on Wednesday night declared, “All those in favor of equal pay, say ‘Aye’!”

Twenty years ago, the U.S. women won the 1999 World Cup and put women’s soccer on the map. They inspired a generation to play and love the sport. That includes me, who wouldn’t be writing these words today without that team.

This summer, Megan Rapinoe and the U.S. team inspired a whole new generation to not only pick up a soccer ball, but to see power in their voice. To demand more for themselves. To celebrate themselves. To love themselves.

They transcended the sport.

As I reflect on my time in France, I realize this final might be the most consequential match I’ve ever witnessed. And I can’t wait to see what the next generation inspires.