USWNT's Historic Rout of Thailand and the Question of Sportsmanship

REIMS, France — Does 13-0 in soccer qualify as good sportsmanship? And would we be asking that question if this were a men’s World Cup?

Those were the inescapable topics that came up after the U.S. beat Thailand by a shocking 13-0 scoreline—the most lopsided in World Cup history, men’s or women’s—in the Americans’ opening game of the 2019 Women’s World Cup here on Tuesday.

And the answers, at least in this column, are: Yes, the 13-goal disparity is fine—and actually demanded by the way FIFA sets up group tiebreakers. And yes, we’d be asking the same question if it happened at a men’s World Cup, the same way we ask the question of men in an early-season college football blowout.

But the exuberant U.S. celebrations that accompanied goals 11, 12 and 13? Well, that’s another question indeed.

First off, the 13-goal victory. Matching Michelle Akers’ 1991 record for the most scored in a single game by a player in the Women’s World Cup, Alex Morgan scored five goals—which is to say, five times as many as she had in all of World Cup 2015—and was joined by Rose Lavelle (two), Sam Mewis (two), Lindsay Horan, Megan Rapinoe, Mallory Pugh and Carli Lloyd to finish off the baker’s dozen against a clearly overmatched Thai side.

- Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Getty Images
Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Getty Images

There were times you wondered if the U.S. had a cheat code. Ten of those goals came in the second half. And when the U.S. was up 7-0, coach Jill Ellis decided to bring on Lloyd and Christen Press and put the U.S. in a rarely seen four-player front line with Morgan and Rapinoe. In other words, we were seeing Extreme Attack Mode. Historically Extreme Attack Mode.

But did the Americans really need to score 13 times? Well, yes, they did. The first tiebreaker in the group stage standings is goal-difference, and it seems likely that both the U.S. and Sweden will be on six points when they meet each other in the group-stage finale on June 20. 

“When you’re playing in a World Cup, every single goal may count at the end of the day. That’s what we were told before the game, and that’s why we had to keep going,” said Morgan, who became the clear early favorite for the Golden Boot award. “I had a personal goal for three.”

Lloyd added: “That was the message going in for me as well as Press: Just keep the foot down on the pedal and try to score as many goals as we can. I would like to say that the Thailand goalkeeper did have some good saves in the first half, and their team was organized, and hopefully they continue to hold their head high. It’s not easy coming out and facing wave after wave of us.”

Ellis put it this way: “To be respectful to opponents is to play hard against opponents.” And she followed that up later with: “I sit here and go, ‘If this is 10-0 in a men’s World Cup game, are we getting the same questions?”

It’s a fair question. But honestly, that questions gets asked all the time in college football, and while blowouts of this scale just don’t seem to happen in the men’s World Cup, I think we’d see it happen if we saw a repeat of Germany’s 8-0 win over Saudi Arabia in World Cup 2002.

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The diciest question of all is this one: Was it appropriate for the U.S. players to keep celebrating wildly as goals six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12 and 13 found the net? Personally, I wouldn’t have been as exuberant as I had been on earlier goals. You run the risk of looking like a bully rubbing it in, of showing up the other team.

But I’m also not a professional soccer player, and I don’t feel comfortable policing the natural emotional reaction of someone who has just done something that may be the pinnacle of her career: Scoring in a World Cup.

Noting that, I asked Morgan about the U.S. goal celebrations after the game, adding that some observers would also criticize them, too. “Every time we score a goal in a World Cup, I’ve dreamed of it since I was a little girl,” she said. “When it comes to celebrations, this was a really good team performance tonight. I think it was important to celebrate with each other.”

With each other. This was the U.S.’s first game in this World Cup, and they see it as a building process, of working with each other, of celebrating with each other.

- Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images
Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images

If you were the 21-year-old Pugh scoring in your first World Cup game, it wouldn’t really matter that it was the U.S.’s 10th goal. It was her first World Cup goal.

“After the game, Mal had tears in her eyes,” Ellis said. “As a coach, when you get caught up in it, you forget these are massive moments for the players.”

I will say this, though: Over the years, several USWNT players have described how bush-league they thought it was when the Norwegians did their “train celebration” after beating the U.S. in the ‘95 semis, or when the Brazilians danced and sang in front of the Americans at their shared hotel after beating them in the ‘07 semis. If you’re O.K. with the U.S.’s goal celebrations on Tuesday, you have to be O.K. with those things too.

It’s also worth noting that nobody on the Thai side had any issues with the scoreline or the celebrations. When I asked coach Nuengrutai Srathongvian how she felt about the U.S. sending attackers on up 7-0 and whether she thought it was “fair play,” she said: “Everybody was following the rules, so our opponent is trying their best. We have to accept that the U.S. team was very good today. We don’t have any excuse.”

While we’re here, let's address anyone who’s saying this game makes a mockery of the Women’s World Cup. It doesn’t. You wouldn’t want every game ending 13-0, but that has not been the case here in France. In fact, other than Tuesday night, one of the biggest stories of this tournament so far has been how competitive supposed “overmatched” teams have been. Witness Argentina’s 0-0 tie against 2011 champion Japan, or Italy’s 2-1 upset of Australia, or more-competitive-than-expected games like Chile-Sweden and New Zealand-Netherlands.

Epic blowouts will still happen from time to time because that can happen when you expand the field. But believe me, Thailand will eventually be better for what happened on Tuesday. And more than ever, I would argue that FIFA should expand the Women’s World Cup from 24 to 32 teams. The incentive to qualify for and compete in a World Cup will improve the level of women’s soccer around the world in the end.

At the final whistle, many of the Thai players were crying. But Morgan went to speak with Thai forward Miranda Nild, a fellow Cal alum, and pulled her close.

“I told her this is Game 1, and she still has two games to showcase herself to get some goals,” Morgan said. “She’s a quality player.”

Nild’s tears may have been emotional tears, but they were not embarrassed tears, as she explained afterward.

“It’s all hitting me at once,” she said. “I think the experience was incredibly emotional. Even before the game it was insane. Just now after it ended, just shaking the [U.S.] players’ hands, I was like, this is so awesome. I’m trying to take the best positive out of it.”

For her part, Lloyd went to Thai goalkeeper Sukanya Chor Charoenying at the final whistle.

“I don’t know if she could understand me,” Lloyd said, “But I told her as a goalkeeper to let in that many goals probably feels absolutely awful. But I told her she had a phenomenal game and came up with some great saves, and to hold her head high and keep fighting.”

“I wanted to make sure she knew that.”

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