It is never difficult, even just scratching the surface of women’s soccer, to find an American connection. Canada has sent some of its best players to American colleges for years, as has Brazil. England defender Lucy Bronze played at the University of North Carolina. So did two of her World Cup teammates.
But few countries have tapped in to the U.S. soccer pipeline quite as deeply as the Philippines has done in recent years. Its World Cup team, the first in the nation’s history, has 18 American-born players on its 23-player roster.
It is a team-building strategy that helped the country construct a squad capable of qualifying for this year’s expanded World Cup. And on Tuesday, that team produced a famous victory, beating the co-host New Zealand, 1-0, on a night when the first goal in Philippines World Cup history produced the first victory in Philippines World Cup history.
The win was delivered, perhaps unsurprisingly, in part by two members of the vast Filipino diaspora: The goal went in off the forehead of a California-born forward, Sarina Bolden, who outjumped two New Zealand defenders to score it, and it was preserved by a shutout from a California-born goalkeeper, Olivia McDaniel.
Like other coaches before him, the Australian coach of the Philippines, Alen Stajcic, said he does not particularly worry about where he finds his players, only that they are committed to winning, to one another, and to the Philippines.
“I don’t really care where they’re born,” Stajcic said recently. “If they have Philippines in their heart and in their blood, and they’re good at football, then they’re eligible for our team.
“They all play for their flag. They all play for their country. They all play for the people in the Philippines, wherever they reside.”
On Tuesday night, as they danced and hugged and celebrated inside a cavernous stadium in Wellington, they found themselves someplace they and their country had never been before: on the winning side at the World Cup.
New Zealand, and its fans, were left stunned. The Football Ferns had defeated Norway in their opening game for their own first-ever win at the World Cup, and Tuesday had brought the chance to all but lock up a place in the knockout rounds for the first time. But New Zealand forward Jacqui Hand hit the post in the 64th minute and had an apparent tying goal ruled out for the slightest of offside decisions moments later.
It was a bitter ending and a bitter disappointment. Now the Ferns, a co-host of the tournament, will turn their focus to their final game against Switzerland, which holds their last hope of getting through.
Norway is looking to bounce back from its opening loss and probably needs a win against Switzerland, and then another against the Philippines, to ensure it goes through to the knockouts.
The Norwegians are led by Ada Hegerberg, the 28-year-old striker — and former world player of the year — who sat out the 2019 World Cup in protest of her federation’s treatment of women’s soccer. Hegerberg, one of the best players in the game, was absent from the national team for five years before returning for the European Championship last summer. But she was surprisingly ineffective against New Zealand, and that won’t do against the Swiss.
Switzerland dominated the Philippines in their opener, outshooting their opponents by 17-3. They are unlikely to have the same advantage over the Norwegians. Ramona Bachmann, who plays her club soccer for Paris St.-Germain, was the standout player in her team’s opening win. She will need a similar performance today to keep Switzerland moving forward.
The World Cup has no shortage of teenage talents, but they are making headlines so fast it is getting hard to keep up.
On Friday, Alyssa Thompson, an 18-year-old who still lives with her parents, became the youngest United States player to appear in a World Cup in two decades. On Monday, Giulia Dragoni, a 16-year-old midfielder, one-upped her when she started for Italy in its opening game.
Then, on Tuesday, Casey Phair, a forward from New Jersey with Korean heritage, did them both one better: Entering Korea’s game against Colombia as a second-half substitute, Phair, at 16 years 26 days, became the youngest player ever to appear in the Women’s World Cup.
Phair’s appearance had been telegraphed by Korea’s coach, Colin Bell, in the weeks since he named her to his final roster. But her playing wasn’t assured until she walked to the sideline to come on in the 78th minute in Sydney.
“Casey is going not as a passenger but as a valuable member of the squad,” Bell had said when he named his World Cup roster.
On Tuesday, he gave Phair her chance.
“She deserved to get the chance to play, Bell said. “She has trained really well, as good as anyone.
“It is also a signal that that’s the future, she is the future,” he added. “We need strong, fast players with physicality.”
Bell and Korea have done their best to welcome — and to protect — Phair, the daughter of an American father and a Korean mother who is the first mixed-race player ever called up by Korea’s national team.
“As far as I’m concerned, she’s still a kid,” Bell said of Phair. “And it’s my duty to protect her so she can blossom and really fulfill her potential.”
If the World Cup’s youth movement has a standard-bearer, though, it might be a different player who took the field in the same match: Linda Caicedo of Colombia.
An 18-year-old forward who plays for Real Madrid, Caicedo opened her World Cup scoring account with a brilliant half-field run in the first half of Colombia’s 2-0 victory. (Yes, the Korean goalkeeper could have done better on Caicedo’s shot. But focus on the skill that got Caicedo in position to shoot, not how the ball went in.)
Caicedo had a remarkable story even before she got to Australia.
Three years ago, when she was 15, she received a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. She had already made her professional debut for her Colombia club, but facing treatment, she thought her promising career was over. “I thought I’d never play again,” she said.
Instead, she recovered and became one of the brightest, and most sought-after, young talents in the world. Her performance in last year’s Copa América Femenina saw her honored as the player of the tournament over more seasoned stars, and saw Colombia book its place in the World Cup.
Asked if she had a message for other young women facing cancer, she said, “I am an example that you can get out of that and overcome this.”
Lise Klaveness does not pull punches. It is not her style. To some, that is a problem. To Klaveness, a former national team player who is now the president of Norway’s soccer federation, it is just who she is.
So she will needle FIFA about its ethical conflicts, about the treatment of migrant workers on World Cup projects, about the rights of women and gay people. She is happy, if needed, to say it straight to the (mostly male) officials at FIFA gatherings, demanding that they, as soccer’s leaders, hold the sport — and themselves — to a higher moral and ethical standard.
“Politically it made me a bit more exposed, and maybe people want to tell me, ‘Who do you think you are?’ in different ways,” Klaveness, 42, said in an interview before the Women’s World Cup. Openly raising questions about human rights and good governance, she said, also “came with a price.”
She also believes her positions reflect those of her federation, and her country. And she says she will not stop pressing them. “I’m very motivated,” she said, “and the day I’m not, I’ll quit. I have nothing to lose.”
When the United States beat China in a penalty shootout to win the 1999 Women’s World Cup, a young Ali Riley was one of the 90,185 fans in attendance. Riley, 11 at the time, looked on as Brandi Chastain scored the decisive penalty, stripped off her jersey and then fell to her knees in triumph.
Twenty-four years later, Riley is playing in her own World Cup. Despite being born and raised in California, Riley, 35, has represented New Zealand internationally since her teens. (Her father, John, is from Christchurch.) But having ridden the wave of growth in women’s soccer herself, she is now hoping to see her team help her rugby-loving country fall for the sport the way the United States team turbocharged it in America with its performance in 1999.
“If these little girls in New Zealand feel inspired to pick up a sport — I hope it’s soccer, of course — from watching the World Cup, when the best players in the world and the best teams in the world are in their backyard, I think that’s the way that we can actually change something for women and for young girls in New Zealand,” Riley said last month in an interview in Los Angeles before departing for the tournament. “So that’s my dream.”
The foundation of that dream was laid last Thursday, when New Zealand stunned Norway, 1-0, to post its first win in six trips to the World Cup.
During her post-match interview, Riley, holding back tears, made sure to flash her hands toward the camera, clearly showing her painted fingernails — one hand in the light blue and pink of the Trans Pride flag, and the other the rainbow colors of the L.G.B.T.Q. Pride flag — as she declared, “anything is possible.”
Riley’s nails were both a show of support — a local newspaper declared her a “straight, gay icon” — and also one of minor rebellion.
FIFA banned rainbow “One Love” armbands ahead of last year’s men’s World Cup in Qatar, saying they would be considered provocations toward the host country and a violation of FIFA’s uniform regulations. FIFA tried to thread a different needle for the women’s tournament, allowing multicolored “Unite for Inclusion” armbands in an event that includes dozens of gay players.
Riley’s nail polish, then, was a purposeful workaround.
Rachel Allison, a sociology professor at Mississippi State and the author of “Kicking Center: Gender and the Selling of Women’s Professional Soccer,” said that what set Riley’s interview apart from other viral moments, such as Abby Wambach kissing her then-wife following the United States’ 2015 Women’s World Cup win, was that Riley’s actions were premeditated.
“Equality and inclusion are central values in the women’s soccer community,” Allison said. “To see a player like Ali Riley clearly knowing that she’s about to become visible through captaining her team and plan ahead to make this statement is incredibly courageous.”