Tobin Heath entered the 2019 World Cup having already won three collegiate titles, two Olympic golds, two NWSL championships as well as, in 2015, a world title. In terms of team honors, she was already one of the most accomplished athletes in U.S. Soccer history, though thanks to today’s results, that claim is significantly stronger. With the United States downing the Netherlands, 2-0, in Lyon this morning, Heath will get an eight-year run as a world champion, at least, with the U.S.’ back-to-back World Cups pushing the program to four world titles.
This is what is expected of the U.S. women, remarkable in a country that, per reputation, isn’t a soccer nation. Nothing could be further from the truth. No nation has won more senior-level titles in the last 30 years than the United States. Thanks to the U.S. women, only Brazil, who have won five times on the men’s side, can claim to have more honors.
That’s worth a “stop, and think about it.” All the glory that’s become folklore within the soccer world for the men’s half of Brazil? It’s taken the U.S. women just as long (28 years, from first title to fourth) to earn a fourth star. This is Bill Russell’s Celtics, UConn basketball, New York Yankees-level stuff. They only get a chance to build on their achievements every four years, but the USWNT's stretch of dominance is as accomplished as any team in the international soccer world, if not all of sport. Perhaps that’s a conversation for another time, but after another world title, it’s a conversation.
For that reason, this World Cup doesn’t change much for the U.S. It just reinforces what’s always been, though that shouldn’t diminish the work that went into the team’s latest honor. The pressure that comes with being expected to win is, in some ways, more exhausting than the ascent. France has learned that the hard way over it’s eight-plus years of prominence. The U.S. has not only dealt with being the target but, as evidenced by the gap between them and the world, has redefined the challenge, continuing to produce more, better, and hungrier players than they did a generation before.
For the individuals, though, things do change. Even for Heath, one of four Thorns celebrating in France as I type. She’s been here before – she’s been everywhere, before – but she’s never been to this particular place twice. Heath is going to be able to spend practically all of her best playing years calling herself a world champion. Think of the Amandine Henrys, Kim Littles and Jessica Fishlocks who have never had that label. Think of the Sam Kerrs and Lucy Bronzes who are also aspiring to that honor. Tobin Heath has done that twice, now.
It’s worth revisiting the resume. As of Sunday, Heath, in terms of team awards, may be the most accomplished player ever in U.S. Soccer – an honor which would likely earn the same distinction on the world’s stage. Only a couple of other North Carolina products are in the conversation, with Heath having time to add honors.
Life changes for Adrianna Franch, too. She was one of the many teammates huddled around Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn and others in the moments after the final whistle. She didn’t play a minute in France but will leave with an honor commemorating the fight she’s waged over the last four years; the responses she had to her setbacks and disappointments; the changes she made to get back in the picture for this tournament. That honor is not only a gold medal but a memory that could fuel her to greater things in 2023. Her life has changed.
Same, too, for Emily Sonnett. The Thorns defender made one appearance this tournament but was otherwise part of the crew, left to train and observe as those who’ve walked the path before showed her the route. But that knowledge, experience and confidence provided a blueprint, showing Sonnett what defined success at a world-class level. She’s just spent two straight months in the classroom of Sauerbrunn. How does that not make you better, going forward?
Her life has changed. So has Lindsey Horan’s. A first-half injury to Kelley O’Hara meant Horan likely got pushed out of the rotation on Sunday, meaning she only played in six out of seven games at the World Cup. As Portland fans, we expected more, but we already had our opportunity to live through the disappointment. Now, we have a choice: To bemoan where we are – even though the performances of Julie Ertz, Rose Lavelle and Samantha Mewis makes it difficult to criticize Jill Ellis – or look at this through the same lens as Franch and Sonnett.
Horan is only 25 years old, may have two more World Cups ahead of her, and is already among the best players in the world at her position. She’s proven herself, whether she logged a minute on Sunday or not. Now, she may not only have a better picture of what it will take to win playing time over the next four years, but she’ll get to study that image as a world freaking champion. Her life has changed, too.
This is the mountain top. This is what every soccer player dreams of, thinking of what it would feel like the fit of that iconic uniform, hear the waves and hums of a Cup final crowd, and toe the sideline in the match’s final seconds, exploding onto the field when the whistle finally goes. The dream for most also includes playing, but when you’re among 23 of the most talented players in the world, it becomes too much to ignore the greatness of others. You fought for a chance to be there, to contribute, to be part of an organism that produced another world title. Forever, “World Cup” can mean something different, to you.
That changes lives, whether you’ve done it one time or two. You’ve seen the end of the road, the payoff, and you know everything that went into that moment. You’ve seen everything there is to see in the soccer world. You get to nod silently, knowingly, whenever somebody tries to explain the world. You get to ignore anything doesn’t match the path you saw.
Nothing will ever be the same. When Portland’s four stars return to the Thorns, they’ll be in a slightly different world. They’ll be world champions, or world champions times two. The next time Franch, Heath, Horan and Sonnett slip on the red and black, they’ll do so with a new part of them fulfilled.