REIMS, France — When France opened the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup by trouncing South Korea, 4-0, the United States women’s national team was watching.
The announced sellout crowd of 45,261. The broadcast aired across the world. The noise that could be heard inside the stadium throughout the entire game. And the poignant win for the host country. The moment overall, despite happening 100 miles from where the U.S. watched on television, shifted the USWNT’s mindset.
“You wait years to be here, and that’s a journey, and then when you get here there’s a whole other journey that starts,” U.S. forward Christen Press said during a news conference about an hour after the team’s first training session in Reims. “I think it was just a shift in all of us, in our mental preparation, from the preparing stage to the performance stage. It’s fun for us to watch the games, feel that excitement, feel that energy, and at the same time stay one step away from it and stay really centered and focused on what we’re doing.”
The Saturday afternoon training session was quick and light, held in front of media and fans about 10 minutes outside of the city center in the commune of Betheny. After some stretching, passing drills and a running, the players took to the sideline to meet some of those fans and sign autographs before heading back to their hotel.
Among the smiling faces reaching out their arms full of gear for the players to sign was a group from the United States embassy that included socio-economically disadvantaged French children ages 8 to 16 from a suburb just outside of Paris.
“It’s quite a diverse neighborhood, with a lot of different nationalities and ethnic groups represented,” said Brian Bauer, cultural attache for the U.S. embassy in Paris. “I think something that’s really interesting to hear is when they talk about seeing a real American. They’re so excited to see a real American, to see American players.
“The kids were super excited. The bus ride out here was pretty intense. A lot of them brought things for the players to sign, they’re all watching the games.”
Carli Lloyd stopped to sign a soccer boot one boy held out to her and the T-shirt of another. After she walked away, they turned to each other, eyes wide and mouths open, showing off their newly-inked possessions.
“I really like football, it’s my passion,” the boy with the boot said through a translator. “It’s one of the best teams in the world, so I’m very happy to see them.”
The U.S. will train again Monday ahead of its Tuesday match against Thailand, which is the last of the opening World Cup matches. There is a lot of action in the days before the U.S. plays — the France victory Friday, plus three games Saturday and Sunday, another two Monday and two Tuesday that kick off earlier than USA-Thailand.
Is it all distracting? Overwhelming? Motivating? Do the U.S. players even pay attention?
According to Press and teammate Lindsey Horan, the answers to those questions are: No. No. Yes. Yes.
Horan said watching the other games allows her to decompress and not think about the pressure that comes with preparing for her first World Cup match.
“I’ve gotten so much advice from so many of the older players that this is one of the best experiences of your life. And to add extra pressure during this time, or in between games or right before a first game, isn’t helping,” Horan said. “So I’m just enjoying the moment with my teammates, try to do the best I can and enjoy watching the best players in the world.”
Press, who was part of the 2015 title-winning team, said she’s paying attention to the other games, but has been hyper-focused on the countdown to the first USWNT match rather than to the start of the World Cup.
“It’s funny, because a few of you have asked, ‘Oh you guys are watching games and there’s a lot of buildup,’ and I hadn’t even thought about it that way,” Press said. “We’ve just been counting down to our first game this whole time. Until then, this all, just everything else that is going on, we can appreciate it and we can enjoy it, but it’s just hyper-focus on Game 1. We started our countdown in the hundreds and we were counting hundreds of days — and it wasn’t to yesterday, it was to the first time we get to step on the field.