Last year, in collaboration with the global players’ association, FIFA implemented the Social Media Protection Service (SMPS), in an effort to shield players, teams, coaches, and officials from online abuse during international tournaments. According to FIFA, the service “worked” during the 2023 Women’s World Cup, reporting and hiding more than 400,000 abusive comments. But it wasn’t until last week that the full extent of the abuse became known. According to the SMPS’ tournament analysis:
- 1 in 5 players at the Women’s World Cup received targeted discriminatory, abusive, or threatening messages
- Homophobic, sexual and sexist abuse accounted for almost 50% of detected verified abusive messages
- Players at the Women’s World Cup were 29% more likely to be targeted with online abuse than players at the Men’s 2022 World Cup in Qatar
The numbers are staggering, but especially so for the US Women’s National Team. According to SMPS, the USWNT were subjected to the most online abuse of any team in the tournament… more than twice as much as any other team in the field. The report notes spikes in abuse coinciding with American matches against Portugal and Sweden. And, though the SMPS report doesn’t name her explicitly, it’s likely that Megan Rapinoe is the US player mentioned as one of the most targeted individuals during the tournament.
A day after the report was released, Netflix dropped Under Pressure: The U.S. Women’s World Cup Team, a limited docuseries on the team’s pursuit of a fifth World Cup Championship. Though docuseries was developed long before the World Cup and, by extension the SMPS report, the timing of it feels serendipitous. It feels like an answer to a question that no one knew to ask.
Under Pressure re-centers the identity of the USWNT. It asks the audience to put aside whatever it is that makes you believe that these women are, to quote one FOX Sports analyst, “polarizing,” and see them for who they truly are. Mothers. Daughters. Wives. Girlfriends. Footballers. Competitors. Americans. Under Pressure tells the story of this team, through the eyes of its past and present stars, and, in the process, reaffirms their humanity.
The docuseries follows the USWNT from its formation to pre-tournament friendlies to the World Cup. It does so from four different perspectives: Alex Morgan, the experienced veteran, working to balance her role as a team captain with her responsibilities as a mother; Lynn Williams, the then-three time NWSL champion still striving for that elusive World Cup cap; Kristie Mewis, the veteran Gotham FC midfielder, looking to finally be on the right side of the bubble; and, Alyssa Thompson, the teenage rookie, experiencing every step for the very first time. Other USWNT players make appearances — Lindsey Horan, Rapinoe, Sofia Huerta, Emily Fox, Savannah DeMelo — but much of the film centers around those four, to positive effect. Focusing on too many players could’ve made the series unwieldly. Instead, the narrative manages to be both expansive and tightly constrained.
For me, it’s Williams and Mewis — both “bubble players” who could or could not make the final roster — that make Under Pressure worth watching. Despite making their first appearance at the World Cup in 2023, both are veteran professional players who bring a lot of perspective to their time on the USWNT.
Williams is a fighter: she’d been left off the USWNT roster for the World Cup once before — in 2019, a moment she called “devastating” — and comes into camp fighting for her spot. She brings a compelling mix of empathy and candor to Under Pressure that instantly makes the audience trust her as a narrator. For example, when Mallory Swanson goes down with an injury, Williams is truly heartbroken for her teammate while admitting, “on the other hand, you recognize that, as a forward, there is now a spot that is opened up and needs to be filled.”
Mewis comes to the team having watched, in 2019, as her younger sister, Sam, accomplish the goal they shared: playing for the USWNT in a World Cup. But a knee injury that Sam Mewis had been playing on since 2017 finally forced her out the game in 2022… leaving her sister with a lot of survivor’s guilt about her time with the national team. Getting to see the sisters’ relationship — which hasn’t always been as strong as it is now — and watching Kristie Mewis grapple with her guilt, was one of the most compelling aspects of Under Pressure.
“I would literally do anything for her to have her career back. I’d give up mine if I could,” the elder Mewis admits.
Queer fans will delight in the window Under Pressure offers into Mewis’ relationship with Australian national team star, Sam Kerr. Mewis brings the same sense of awe that she has about being part of the national team to her relationship with Kerr. It’s like she really can’t believe that Kerr loves her (to which, I wonder, “has Kristie Mewis not seen herself?”). But Kerr truly does love Mewis: so much so that she keeps the news of her national team selection a secret until Mewis knows her fate. They are absolutely adorable together and I loved getting this glimpse into their love story.
(Sidenote: In Under Pressure, Mewis admits that she doesn’t foresee a future where she and Kerr will continue to have a long distance relationship. Yesterday, The Athletic reported that Mewis is on her way to join Kerr in London. Giving up a slot on a championship winning squad to move to one of the worst teams in the Women’s Super League? That’s love.)
Unlike other docuseries of this sort (i.e., The Last Dance), Under Pressure doesn’t look for drama. It actually seems to studiously avoid it. In someone else’s hands, I imagine a series that spends more time on the Swanson or Becky Sauerbrunn injuries — seizing on the drama of going from being the USWNT’s leading scorer or the USWNT’s captain to being forced from the roster — but Under Pressure doesn’t dwell on it. There’s no footage of other players — Casey Krueger, Tierna Davidson, Adrianna Franch, or Taylor Kornieck — who participated in training camps but ended up on the wrong side of the bubble. We don’t get to see any of those bubble players have tear-filled Facetime calls with head coach Vlatko Andonovski. Admittedly, I didn’t know how to feel about those omissions at first. Sports are a rollercoaster and the highs come with some painful lows; showcasing those felt necessary. But we all know how this story ends — with the USWNT being ousted from the World Cup earlier than it ever has — and, ultimately, that heartbreak felt like the one worth focusing on.
The absence of drama in Under Pressure also means that no one should come to the series hoping to get answers for what went wrong. If anything, Williams and Mewis’ commentary — Williams on the lack of substitutions and Mewis on the last minute request that she take a penalty vs. Sweden — only underscores the level of confusion that existed within the ranks. But there’s no spicy commentary from players in Under Pressure and no deep interrogation on the choices that were made. It’s frustrating, but I suppose that the only true closure for that kind of loss comes in 2027.
— Tobin Heath (@TobinHeath) August 7, 2023
Despite the intense match that ended the USWNT’s run, Sweden attacking midfielder Kosovare Asllani was nothing but effusive with praise for the team afterwards, sending a clear message to the haters: “don’t talk shit about the U.S. team women.” She knew, as does the rest of the women’s soccer community, that the USWNT are pioneers… that their efforts, both on the pitch and off, are raising the game for everyone.
The USWNT fight for equal pay inspired teams from around the world to do the same. The pushback, by American players, to the abusive environments within their club teams steeled the spine of other nations, as their players stood up to abusive environments created by their federations. The team’s greatness has forced other federations to step up and invest in the women’s game. Losing a World Cup cannot undo that legacy.
But it is that legacy that those who subjected the team to so much online vitriol, loathe. They can’t have the world believing that women are equal, so they attack. Somehow, those disingenuous attacks have become the narrative about this USWNT. Under Pressure feels like the start of the pushback. It begins the work of re-establishing this team as more than just pawns in someone else’s narrative. It is a retelling and a reclaiming of this team’s identity… and to that, I can only say: LFG.
Under Pressure: The U.S. Women’s World Cup Team is now streaming on Netflix.