At U.S. women’s soccer match, fans root for a country that doesn’t always represent them

How USWNT players and fans are finding balance between frustration and joy in wake of Roe v. Wade’s reversal

(Rick Bowmer | AP) U.S. players pose for a photo before an international friendly soccer match against Colombia on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, in Sandy, Utah.

Sandy • Outside Rio Tinto Stadium this week, little girls wearing Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan jerseys scored goals in the parking lot. Fans lined up for photos. Several people donned clothing colored red, white and blue, including a man that had his face painted like the American flag.

Everyone was there to watch the U.S Women’s National Team eventually win 2-0 against Colombia in a tune-up before World Cup qualifiers.

But in a stadium filled with joy, there were a lot of heavy hearts. Less than a week after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending the constitutional right to an abortion in the process, the prospect of cheering on the red, white and blue brought mixed emotions.

During a week of protests, anger and fear, the women on the team have represented a country in which so many people are deeply hurt. Meanwhile, some U.S. soccer fans were grappling with supporting their favorite players while rooting for a nation they feel doesn’t fully represent them.

“I love the U.S. Women’s National Team with all my heart,” said Amanda Darrow, a longtime fan who is also the Program Director at the Utah Pride Center. “But it’s hard for me to wear the American flag right now with so much divisiveness in the country.”

There is perhaps no women’s sports team in the United States as popular as U.S. soccer team, and there may only be a handful of sports teams in the country more progressive.

The day after Roe was overturned, the USWNT played a game in Denver. The team on Twitter put out a statement that read, in part, “the occasion serves as a reminder of the rights and freedoms that women have fought for, earned and deserve. … U.S. Soccer will continue to use our platform to fight for fundamental human rights, inclusion, tolerance freedom and equality.”

Rapinoe blasted the decision, once again lending her voice to a controversial social issue.

Before Tuesday’s exhibition in Utah, USWNT forward Ashley Hatch, who played college soccer at BYU, organized a charity tailgate to benefit Journey of Hope, a Utah-based organization that aides at-risk women, girls and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

USWNT players have been leaning on each other lately as they play games and find a way to still feel joy on the field in a Roe-less country. Coach Vlatko Andonovski said after the game that the team talked among itself, as did the coaching staff, sorting out conflicting emotions.

“Hard times, we think, for everyone,” Hatch said postgame. “But I think, since we have each other, I think it helps. And I think we get the most joy stepping on the field together.”

That joy was palpable when, after a 42-minute lightning delay, former Utah Royals player Kelley O’Hara scored her first international goal since February 2016. It came in the 77th minute and was immediately followed by smiles and laughter all around.

About 25 members of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard team attended Tuesday’s game in support of the USWNT. Alice Merryweather was one of them. She said that she felt “deeply frustrated” by the Supreme Court decision, and that while it was not surprising due to the draft opinion leaking in early May, it was still “shocking” and “painful.”

Her feelings about representing the U.S., however, haven’t fully formed yet.

“I haven’t really thought about it in the context of representing the United States,” Merryweather said. “I like to think I’ll still represent the good sides of the U.S. and be vocal about what I believe in. There are a lot of people out there that do believe that a woman has the right to choose and a right to control her own body.”

Merryweather added that the U.S. Ski team recently announced it would support any athlete or staff member that needs to travel for reproductive health care, a decision she found “really encouraging” and for which she felt “grateful.”

Despite the current climate in the country, some fans have felt more empowered lately, particularly when hearing Rapinoe and other USWNT players speak up for causes they believe in.

“I definitely feel like it’s an inspiration, especially since they’re women,” said Jacey Carr, one of the thousands of fans at Rio Tinto Stadium. “Sometimes, being a woman, you don’t have everything given to you, I guess. Just having people in power that have a following to make statements is really, really empowering.”

The same goes for Merryweather, who said the USWNT players’ advocacy inspires her to be “louder.”

“I think it just encourages me and the rest of my team to be more vocal,” Merryweather said. “It’s just it’s about women supporting women, and the louder we can all be together, the more people will hear us. And hopefully that will help spur some kind of change.”

For many, the country’s political divide has not eroded their fandom or their desire to represent the U.S.

“One thing I know is the moment we put the shirt on, the moment we put the crest on, that’s what it’s all about,” Andonovski said. “We want to be good ambassadors of this country, good ambassadors of the game and role models for everyone that is coming in to see us and furthermore.”

Added Carr: “To me, it makes me want to be a fan more just having people like that on my side and people that I look up to like that on my side. I appreciate it from them.”

The announced attendance for Tuesday’s game was 16,077. Mathematically speaking, not all of them believe in a woman’s right to choose.

Merryweather said there was a time in her career when she would’ve watched what she said about the a hot-button issue like abortion rights. But nowadays, she is not worried about alienating current or potential fans.

“If they don’t agree with what I’m putting out, they can unfollow me, they can choose not to cheer for me,” Merryweather said. “I think that it’s that important that I’m not going to be quiet just to try to maintain a fan base. And I hope that a lot of other athletes feel the same. I think a lot of athletes do, and that’s cool to see.”

Darrow, meanwhile, hopes to one day feel pride in wearing a U.S.A. jersey again.

“I want to say that this stands for more,” Darrow said. “And I hope that being able to use that platform and being able to stand for America that I’ll be proud again one day to see the American flag, and see the crest, and make sure that I know that this team does represent all of us and this country.”