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USWNT balances emotions of NWSL report with games: ‘This isn’t new’

Alana Cook was one of two players to speak with reporters from London on Tuesday. (Bill Barrett/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

On Monday, the U.S. women’s national team arrived in London for a pair of friendlies against England and Spain, starting with the Lionesses on Friday in front of a sold-out crowd at Wembley Stadium. The match against the 2022 Euro champions and FIFA No. 4-ranked team is one of the USWNT’s most anticipated games of the year, with both teams preparing for the 2023 World Cup.

Also on Monday, U.S. Soccer released a bombshell report on the findings of Sally Q. Yates’ independent investigation into abusive behavior and sexual misconduct in the NWSL. The report unveiled allegations of misconduct against three coaches who worked in the league during many of the national players’ NWSL careers.

Since the release of the findings, the players have been “horrified and heartbroken and exhausted and really, really angry,” USWNT defender Becky Sauerbrunn told the media on Tuesday. They are frustrated, she said, that outside reporting and a third-party investigation were needed to expose the league’s abusers.

Friday’s match against England is quickly approaching. As a result, the USWNT’s players, 22 of whom currently play in the NWSL, are tasked with enduring the emotional weight of the report and preparing for arguably their biggest game of the year.

For Sauerbrunn and 25-year-old U.S. defender Alana Cook, that balance is nothing new. Last year, NWSL players finished the season while grappling with the fallout from a report in The Athletic detailing allegations of sexual coercion and emotional abuse against then-North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley.

“Unfortunately, I would say that you have to get used to it and you have to ride the highs and the lows and you have to do your best and you have to enact as much change as you can, while also demanding more from those that have the power to do so,” Sauerbrunn said.

Cook agreed, adding, “I think as women, especially as a minority, this isn’t new. I think these hostile conditions are kind of now being unearthed and publicly revealed, but it’s things that we’ve been dealing with for the entirety of our careers.

“We have gotten to this point because we have learned how to deal with the difficulties surrounding what we do and the difficulties in our lives and being able to still perform.”

The approach, as Sauerbrunn and Cook explained it, is taking camp one day at a time and using training as time to think about soccer and being with teammates. They’re also trying to appreciate the small moments that bring joy.

“I think that for so long, the passion for the game has been taken away from players because of the abuse that they have faced in this league,” said Sauerbrunn. “I think that for me, I’m done allowing that to happen. I love the game of soccer. I want to be passionate and I want to play, and you need to bring that joy and accessibility back to the game.

“For me, it’s finding that joy again with my teammates and not allowing anyone to take that away from me like it’s been taken away from so many people.”

Since arriving in London on Monday, soccer has been treated as an outlet for the players and not an obligation.

As they prepare to face England on Friday before traveling to Spain for Tuesday’s friendly, players and staff are all dealing with the weight of the findings in different ways. Some need space, while others need to talk.

“That means that if they don’t want to participate in a meeting or they don’t want to participate in training, or even if they don’t want to play the game, it is up to them because this is more than that,” head coach Vlatko Andonovski told reporters on Tuesday.

“The recommendation here has been, ‘Do what you need to be OK,’” Cook said. “I think we all recognize in this moment that the things that have gone on, the things that have been unearthed, are much bigger than soccer.”

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.