The U.S. women’s national team turned in a strong showing in Friday night’s quarterfinal win over France, but there was one element that especially impressed Phil Neville.
The England boss was watching on to see who his team would face in the World Cup semifinal. As the clock ticked down and they held onto a 2-1 lead, Neville noticed the U.S. looked calm, composed. Like they knew the outcome before the game even ended.
“When you saw the last five minutes of the game against France, the game management was fantastic,” Neville said. “They took the ball to the corner, they knew what it took to win and they celebrated like winners. That’s what I admire.
“I’ve got to say, America have got that ruthless streak of wanting to win.”
Neville, who earned countless trophies during his playing days with Manchester United, should know a winner when he sees one. The U.S. is certainly that, having won both the most World Cups (three) and Olympic gold medals (four) in women's soccer history.
As U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher says, her team’s winning mentality was not invented but rather inherited.
“That is the root of the U.S. women’s national team from way back to the teams from 20 years ago,” Naeher said.
“That’s always been the U.S. mentality and that’s something that every veteran player has instilled in all the new players as we’ve come in. It’s now our job to carry that through.”
As the talent gap in the women’s game continues to close, the USWNT believes that their winning mentality and togetherness now define them as much as the obvious quality they have on the field.
To be sure, the current iteration of the USWNT has plenty of talent. Many players on their bench would undoubtedly be starters for nearly every other team at the World Cup. This depth can manifest itself as a blessing or a curse, as a disgruntled dressing room could adversely affect the team.
But the U.S. has managed to put any dissatisfaction to the side and appear, to the outside world at least, as a united front.
“We have such a tight group, It’s really incredible,” Megan Rapinoe said. “We really do have a group that just wants to win. There are some players that might not get to play for the rest of the tournament. They’re just as important as everyone else, and they’re in it.”
Rapinoe is an appropriate avatar of the team’s ability to stay locked in. Publicly feuding with the President of the United States during the World Cup would not exactly be a recipe for success for most players, but this tournament has made it abundantly clear that Rapinoe is not most players.
As head coach Jill Ellis puts it: “It's almost like it just feeds her. She's a big personality both on and off the pitch."
Ellis too has played a big role in the USWNT’s internal confidence. Though her tactical and lineup decisions continue to be heavily questioned, there is little doubt that she has been able to instill a spirit and confidence that permeates throughout the team.
“The team rises to the occasion,” Christen Press said. “We’ve done a great job at flipping pressure and making it inspiration."
That pressure will be back on Tuesday when the U.S. takes on England with a trip to the World Cup final at stake. The Lionesses are now coached by a man who knows what it takes to win, and who has injected that attitude into his own team.
“They have a manager who has instilled that belief in them and you can see that energy and that passion when you watch them play,” Naeher said of Neville.
England and the United States are both extremely talented sides. Whichever team has the mental edge may just end up advancing.