Book review: ‘The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer’

The 2015 World Cup validated the idea that the Women’s World Cup was a must-see event in the United States. The U.S. team became stars, TV ratings were through the roof, and not since 1999 had women’s soccer been a cultural phenomenon. Since then, women’s soccer has maintained a presence if at times uneven, and the popularity of girl’s soccer rises.

But like 1999, 2015 did not happen in a vacuum. We know how the women’s team did in the Olympics and World Cup, yet the behind-the-scenes machinations were just as important to the long-term success of this team as what happened on the field.

Veteran journalist Caitlin Murray details how the modern U.S. women’s team came to be in The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer. Her writing style makes it feel like you’re reading a documentary but in a way that keeps you reading to know what happened next in the story. Starting in the 1990s, she walks the reader through the development of the national team in tournaments and off-the-field in negotiations. Her unparalleled access to the biggest names in soccer means we hear from the key players from each era, including the team’s coaches, USSF officials, and of course the players.

Earlier this year, the book SoccerWomen told the story of women’s soccer across the world from the perspective of the players, primarily in their own words. Murray also uses direct quotes from players and other interviews but instead weaves a narrative focused on the team and the landscape. It is not the players who are characters but the USWNT, the USSF, and tournament opponents. The books seeks to educate more than inspire, but does so in a narrative way that lays out the progress the women’s national team has made. In doing so, it does not shy away from controversy; familiar “villains” like Hope Solo and USSF officials are castigated for their behavior at understandable points in the book.

And yet, Murray does not take the next step in her narrative of being critical of the team itself. Throughout the book a theme is seen where national team players are unafraid to turn on their coaches. Almost no coach leaves without having at least a group of players stabbing them in the back. Yet Murray does not castigate players for these actions, but simply notes where the dissension seemed to be coming. The main character, the USWNT, is too important to impugn when it does wrong.

Caitlin Murray has a reputation for her excellent reporting, and it shows here. Her investigative work to write a comprehensive narrative on how the U.S. women’s team changed on and off the field is unparalleled and a must-read for a serious fan of the sport. Yet the book lacks a critical element that fails to hold the team and its players as a unit accountable for its failures. While a small item, it prevents this from being one of the best soccer books ever rather than a really great read.

The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer
By Caitlin Murray
Abrams
352 pages

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