You may have heard by now. The United States Women’s Soccer Team lost in the round of 16 in this year’s World Cup. Favored, or at least highly touted, this year’s team — though having lost a few of its more talented players from years past — had high aspirations to continue their tradition of winning that has come to be so commonplace for this program for decades.
A few stats to help you understand the giant that U.S. Women’s Soccer is on the international stage:
- Since 1991 (the first official Women’s World Cup) the United States has won 4 World Cups (1991, 1999, 2015, 2019).
- In the years they didn’t win, they have one 2nd place finish and three 3rd place finishes.
- The next closest country is Germany with 2 World Cup titles and 3 top-4 finishes. From there it tapers off relatively quickly.
- The U.S. also boasts two of the top-4 goal scorers of all time and holds the record for most goals scored in World Cup matches at 138.
There are other individual accolades, as well, but this gives you an idea of just how long the U.S. Women’s National Team has been the team to beat internationally. They are, without question or debate, the juggernaut of the women’s game.
At least, for now. Because, this year none of that mattered. They came into the tournament with a little less swagger than usual, failed to impress the critics in their first 3 matches (even though they played well enough to advance to the knock-out stage), and were eliminated on penalty kicks against Sweden in the wee hours of the morning, U.S.-time. (The southern-hemisphere location and time zone seemed to poetically speed up the result. No last-minute comeback.) Just their earliest exit ever from the tourney.
What surprised me the most, however, and quite honestly usually does when it comes to sports journalism, was how critical much of the media was over the loss. Men. Women. Americans. Internationals. Other coaches. Even some of the American players themselves. It didn’t matter. The common refrain was one of shock, almost disgust. Megan Rapinoe, who missed one of the penalty kicks, said afterward, “It felt like a sick joke.” Others looked to rationalize it by assigning blame or finding excuses where they could. “Heads will roll,” they said. I admit, it was easy for me to join in with the critics.
But these kinds of responses are also short-sighted. Yes, we just saw Goliath collapse to the ground, dead. But we’ve seen it before, and we’ll see it again. What exactly are our long-term expectations for this program? What’s good enough?
I don’t claim to be an elite soccer mind here, but 4 World Cup titles is pretty good, right? I don’t think this U.S. women’s team has anything to really hang their heads about, at least as a program. What else is there to prove?
Well, it turns out this stuff is more ingrained than we might like to think. It’s a big part of how we, as fallen human beings, try to make sense of the world. Success often has less to do with getting to the top and more to do with staying on top. And even though that’s an impossible standard for anyone, we scratch our heads looking for the reasons for such untimely and surprising falls from grace. “There must be a rational reason for the imperfection, right? What small tweaks can we make in order to right the ship?”
Christian theology says to all of this that high expectations are actually what cause us to fall. The Apostle Paul says in Galatians 5, if you let yourselves live under a part of the law, then you are obligated to obey the whole law. If you place yourself under the burden of doing in order to be (and stay) saved, then what’s required is nothing less than lawful perfection: “The one who does these things will live by them” (Lev 18:5). And now when we read the law today, it continues to shout at us from the top of the moralistic stat sheet, “Come up here!” Or worse: “Stay up here! Don’t lose your footing!” … when in fact we’re always in a state of slipping.
Solomon calls this a “chasing after the wind” in Ecclesiastes 1 — a type of treadmill existence that never really gets us anywhere. Josh Cohen, in his article The Perfectionist Trap, says, “Something about being human makes it difficult to feel that we have done, or are, enough. We are unwilling to extinguish the hope that, one day, we will be recognized as exceptional.” And so we keep running. What we need is something (or someone) who comes apart from the law and all of its trappings. Instead of chasing the wind, we need the Wind to chase us, save us, and tell us that we actually don’t have to get anywhere at all in order to be whole.
And that’s really where all of this is heading: the fact that it’s never enough (that we’re never enough) drives us to stop looking inward and to start looking outward. Grace alone speaks a word of acceptance to both winners and losers alike because it’s given to us completely apart from human merit, and only through the one who became a “sick joke” on a wooden cross for us, dying in our place, and loving us to the uttermost. If God could become that low for us, then maybe there’s hope for us chronic-looker-uppers, and hope that the voice from the top of the stat sheet might grow fainter and fainter with time.