I've been thinking about the USWNT as they get ready to take on the world in the Olympics. Partly because of the debate touched off here - and also Grant's excellent article that sparked off the discussion.
In some ways, I blame Anson Dorrance.
This is not to say that the man isn't an excellent coach. His record, both with North Carolina and the US women's team, speaks for itself. It's simply extraordinary.
In my view, Dorrance's talent, aside from his soccer savvy, was that he tapped into a powerful element of female motivation - the mother instinct. Players were charged with looking out for one another. He preached the "power of the whole" to his players. He taught them to think of how what they did affected the entire squad. If Tar Heels were lionesses (running fast, working hard, deadly on the attack), then Dorrance was the king lion, (sitting back and looking good).
In any pack mentality, no matter how successful, conformity rules. Dissent simply isn't tolerated. Control is couched as protecting the players themselves. "So-and-so saying anything against me is an attack on all of you", leading to the protective reaction among a group.
Obviously, Dorrance isn't with the USWNT as coach any more, hasn't been for years. Yet he continues to exert an influence, and not just because UNC continues to produce more USWNT members than any other college.
In some ways, this was evident in the way the members of the women's team closed ranks in the Debbie Keller situation. Dorrance wasn't the coach of the U.S. at that time.
However, as the first ever winning coach of the program, Dorrance set a lot of the protocol for how the team should behave. Player after player mentioned this to me in interviews whenever I would ask about how the team established itself. It was very much, "Anson started us on this path" type-thing. What surprised me there was that they didn't take more credit on themselves. "Well, we worked like hell in those early days and got results". Granted, the players who named Dorrance specifically to me were Kristine Lilly, Lindsey Tarpley, Heather O'Reilly - all UNC alums, so they logged more time hearing the Dorrance message than others. It's not hard to imagine, though, that players arriving to the squad from elsewhere would soon fall in line with the status quo of behavior.
Of course, the USWNT is sensitive to the idea that they are "Ex-UNC + a few more from other places". One time I asked Tarpley about how comfortable it was to play with so many former college teammates, and the influence that exerted on the team as a whole. She was never allowed to answer. The question was cut off by a team official as irrelevant to the national squad and I was instructed to move on to another query.
I guess that's why it didn't surprise me too much that, despite her former closeness to Hope Solo, Catherine Whitehill (UNC 03) became the player who thought Solo had plotted her post-Brazil statement, while Carli Lloyd, a Rutgers alum, dared to break ranks with the witch-hunt to comfort Solo. Why would Grant specifically mention how Lloyd merely spending time with Solo would jeopardize her status with other team members if there wasn't an intense pressure from them to maintain the ostracizing of Solo?
As I've mentioned before, Pia Sundhage represents a movement away from the groupthink of "you're with us, or against us, and one wrong step against us is all it takes". She came into the team with one agenda: pick the best players to understand her system, and teach them to win. The politics of who-said-what and picking sides didn't seem to interest her in the slightest. When I asked her about the controversy, she dismissed it with a shrug and said simply that she expected the players to be professional. Nothing about loyalty at any cost, the mysterious bonds of a team or unwritten "codes" of conduct. The cult of so-called sisterhood that had been the doctrine was tossed out, basically. It needed to be - the old way was outdated and unrealistic, a myth, really.
This is not to say that the women are now better off because they're thinking more like men, or anything like that. Simply put, acting like professionals is a good idea for anyone.