Here is why controversy over the U.S. team is good for the Women’s World Cup | Opinion

The best women’s soccer team in the world is now its most controversial, and that makes this Women’s World Cup even more intriguing.

Three days after the United States set World Cup records with a 13-0 thrashing of grossly overmatched Thailand, fans and pundits all over the globe were still wrangling over whether the Americans ran up the score and were too exuberant in their celebrations of late-game goals, whether veteran team captain Megan Rapinoe really needed to celebrate the ninth goal of the rout with a double twirl and slide and whether critics of the U.S. team were sexist.

That is a sign of progress for the women’s game — that people care enough to debate about it and be critical of coaches and players.

There was a time, not too long ago, when nobody but the players’ families and diehard soccer fans even knew the Women’s World Cup was taking place, let alone knew players by name and had opinions on the intensity of their goal celebrations. In 1991, when the U.S. team won the inaugural tournament in China, there was virtually no media coverage and players had to fax results to their loved ones back home.

Women’s soccer was irrelevant on the mainstream sports landscape. That is no longer the case. Millions of fans are expected to tune in Sunday at noon when the U.S. team, full of swagger, plays its second game against Chile.

So, no matter what side you take on this debate, how wonderful it is to see talking heads yammering on about the American women on TV, calling them everything from heroic and valiant to arrogant and classless.

My take: They are heroic, incredibly gifted, smart women who have every reason to feel pent-up frustration. They should play their guts out and prove, once and for all, they are worthy of being paid by U.S. Soccer the same as their male counterparts, who get paid more to win less. They should be promoted heavily and compensated generously for winning three World Cups, elevating the status of the women’s game all over the planet and inspiring other nations to start investing in their female athletes.

They should score as many goals as they can because goal differential comes into play at the end of the group stage. Also, it would be disrespectful to the opponent and unnatural for world-class players to ease up and stop scoring at a World Cup. There is no mercy rule in big-time sports. That is reserved for youth sports.

The German women beat Argentina 11-0 at the 2007 World Cup. The German men beat Brazil 7-1 at the 2014 World Cup. The U.S. men’s basketball team beat Nigeria 156-73 at the 2012 Olympics. The Georgia Tech football team beat Alcorn State 69-6 in 2015.

Routs happen all the time. They’re part of sports.

It is also understandable that Rose Lavelle, Malory Pugh and Samantha Mewis would celebrate their first World Cup goals. That is a lifelong dream and a fantastic achievement, even against a weaker team.

But at some point, somewhere around Goal No. 7 and Goal No. 8, the vigorous U.S. group celebrations should have been tempered. It was clear by that point that Thailand did not belong on the field with the United States; so exuberant cheering for the ninth, 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th goals looked heartless and drew even more attention to Thailand’s inferiority. If you’re scoring 13 goals on a top-notch team like France, there is reason to be giddy. But against Thailand?

My daughter played soccer for 14 years, club and high school. One of the lessons stressed by all her coaches was to win and lose with grace. Her high school team dominated its district, outscoring opponents 132-8 her senior year — and that was with an 8-0 mercy rule. Against the weak teams, once it was clear the game was well in hand, their goal celebrations never went beyond a fist pump or maybe a hug with one teammate. Sometimes, it was hard to tell they had even scored.

And yes, men should be — and generally are — held to the same standards. This has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with humility. Cristiano Ronaldo got mocked by fans and blasted in the media when he ripped his shirt off and flexed his muscles to celebrate the fourth goal in a 4-1 win over Atletico in the 2014 Champions League. Most men’s pro leagues around the world have penalties for excessive celebration and taunting.

Sunday afternoon in Paris, the top-ranked United States faces another inferior opponent. Chile is a World Cup rookie and at No. 39 is five spots below Thailand in the FIFA World Rankings. The Chileans had a very respectable opening match, losing just 2-0 to a veteran talented Swedish team, so maybe they will challenge the Americans more than the Thai women did.

It will be interesting to see how the U.S. women react if the score begins to get out of hand. Will they tone down their celebrations or not? The eyes of the world will be on them, and the giant target on their collective back is even bigger than ever.

Some fans will be rooting against them after their opening day performance. Others will be rooting even harder for them.

No matter what happens on the field, the U.S. women have already scored a major victory in this World Cup – more significant than their record-setting 13-0 drubbing of Thailand. They got everyone talking about women’s soccer and equal pay. Now, that is worthy of a double twirl and a slide!