By today’s 82nd minute in Paris, the near-sellout crowd who’d filled the Parc des Princes seemed beyond celebrations. They’d come to watch the most famous women’s sports team in the world, the United States’ national team, and among the 45,594 visiting the home of Paris Saint-Germain, there would have been few disappointments. Perhaps a few sighs were let out when the likes of Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath were missing from the starting lineup against Chile, but in two goals from Carli Lloyd and a trademark headed conversion from Julie Ertz, the crowd saw a very American performance.
Part of that Americanness was the match being resolved by the game’s last minutes, but it was within that denouement that fans of Portland Thorns FC were given their day’s memory. With Heath rotated out of the team, they were denied chances for others, fewer still when Chilean goalkeeper Christiane Endler denied Lindsey Horan her tournament’s second goal with a highlight-worthy save in the second half. Among the rest of the U.S.’ Thorns, goalkeeper Adrianna Franch was still relegated to a backup’s role, leaving only one other Thorn to monitor.
Emily Sonnett hadn’t appeared in a World Cup before. In her first year out of college, she was an alternate on the 2016 Olympic team but lost her place in the national team shortly after, falling from elite prospect to underdog over the course of the following months. A reset was required, one that eventually took her to Australia’s W-League to continue pursuing her soccer. But when the fourth official raised her number on Saturday in Paris, her broader journey was complete. Coming on late for Abby Dahlkemper, Sonnett had appeared in her first World Cup.
Her story has been told so often, there’s no need to write another fable. But in the context of the eight minutes she saw at the Parc des Princes, her arc carries some needed reminders. As the group stage enters its final rounds and matches spike and fall in value, it’s worth noting World Cup debuts will continue, and just as Hayley Raso’s first minutes last week for Australia marked a memorable moment, so too will there be more Sonnetts over this phase’s final matches. Those players may not have the same connections to Portland as Sonnett, but their breakthroughs will be just as important.
There’s also something from the nature of Sonnett’s story we should remember, something she went into before the tournament when talking to Adrianna Franch. Both players had experienced challenges throughout their World Cup cycle – obstacles so profound that, half-way through the four-year stretch, it appeared France was not in their futures. Both deserve recognition for what they overcame, but when it comes to the theme of perseverance, they’re not alone. The nature of sports and competition mean that almost everybody who made it to France had something substantial to conquer.
Consider the U.S.’ other two substitutes on the day, both former Thorns. Jessica McDonald’s World Cup debut at halftime of today’s match concluded one of the more circuitous paths to soccer’s greatest showcase, one that went from junior college to the University of North Carolina, then Women’s Professional Soccer, Australia’s W-league, and six different NWSL teams. With a major knee injury mixed in, McDonald has had to prove herself in a way few athletes are ever challenged to do.
Then there’s Allie Long, whose disappointment after missing the 2015 World Cup sparked a national team surge. She made the team for the 2016 Olympics and played a major role in the tactical experiments that followed, but over the last year, her place for France come into doubt. Come today’s 59th minute, Long erased all uncertainty as to whether she’d play in a World Cup.
For those players, today’s debuts were the climax of life-long journeys, but if everything goes right for Sonnett, this will be the latest stop on a longer road. Only 25 years old, the Thorns center back may have two cycles of relevance ahead of her, part of the reason why getting minutes in France wasn’t a make-or-break proposition. But just like the Longs and McDonalds of the world, Sonnett’s now seen a dream come true – a moment that should resonate no matter how many World Cups you have in front of you.
Coming near the end of a one-sided game, her debut didn’t prompt a celebration. Neither did Long’s of McDonald’s. It wasn’t that kind of night. But in head coach Jill Ellis making seven changes to her lineup from the Thailand rout, and the three substitutions she kept aside for World Cup debutants, there was an acknowledgement of the milestone’s value. A mere two rounds into this year’s tournament, Ellis has already made sure every field player has gotten minutes at the World Cup.
Consider it a small act of kindness, the type of which we usually applaud in soccer. The playing the ball out for an injured opponent. The rare letting the opposition score to balance an unjust goal. For all the pettiness and cynicism we see in today’s game, there are still moments that remind you of an underlying code – a respect those who devote their lives to the game maintain for each other. In Ellis making time for as many players as possible, she was saying thank you for their four years’ hard work.
In truth, it’s been more than four years for Sonnett. These last four are just the ones we cared about most. But from attending Atlanta Beat games in the old Women’s Professional Soccer to her time as a professional herself, Sonnett’s dreams of being this player run far past our view. We’re just lucky that today, in that 82nd minute, we were around for the latest milestone.