Sam Mewis: What it's like to play in a World Cup final (2024)

This article was originally published in August 2023, just before the Women’s World Cup final between England and Spain. Sam Mewis announced her retirement from football due to a knee injury on January 19, 2024.

To the players of England and Spain — I know what you’re feeling right now. Winning the World Cup seems inevitable.

Sure, you’ve had nervous moments in the tournament so far. Spain lost to Japan 4-0 in the group stage. England scraped through the Nigeria game that saw Lauren James sent off and suspended. But those nervous moments have been hugely outweighed by joy — the relief and excitement with each knockout-stage win, tons of goal celebrations, big moments from players. At this stage, your joy is carrying you.


Now you’re one match away from the biggest accomplishment of your life. Your team has overcome penalty kicks, tactical challenges, hungry opposition, the tournament grind, and VAR goal checks. You’ve had ups and downs throughout the tournament and you’ve made it all the way to the end.

It feels inevitable that you’ll win the final. You have to. You’ve made it this far.

The group-stage games at the World Cup in 2019 were the biggest games I’d ever played in my life at that point. It’s hard to explain what it was like to score on my World Cup debut, but I guess it was similar to my first USWNT goal (let’s just say it wasn’t a game-winner). I was so happy and proud of myself, thankful to my teammates, and overwhelmed with love for family for getting me into a position to accomplish my dreams.

My memories of the early games in the tournament mostly revolve around two emotions: joy and stress. That first game was overwhelmingly joyous for us as we scored goal after goal, celebrated with each other and gained confidence and experience at the tournament. However, stressors that were usually no big deal — should I wear studs or molds? — felt bizarrely life or death all of a sudden.

Moving into the knockout rounds, the joy and stress only elevate. You realize with each event on the field that you are this close to going through and this close to going home. Was that ball out of bounds? Did our substitutes get in before or after the set piece was taken? Is the ref letting fouls go or calling it tight? Who is making the near-post run on crosses? Every little decision feels massive in a way it didn’t before because it carries the weight of elimination.

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Sam Mewis on the ball during the U.S.’s 2019 World Cup round of 16 match against Spain. (Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images)

It’s the round of 16 in Reims and we’re playing Spain. We’re waiting for the VAR decisions to come back — it’s taking forever. It has to be a PK, right? It is. Megan Rapinoe steps up to take it. And then: joy.

Against France in the quarterfinals in Paris, it’s just so loud. Playing the host country feels huge — this was the game that people were talking about months before the World Cup even began — and the game that could have been a World Cup final. Near post runs on our goals in this game, “dirty work” that sometimes gets totally overlooked, become so critically important to us winning. I drop a second too early on a defensive set piece and boom. France pulls it back to 2-1: stress.


In the England game for the semifinal, I have a different perspective starting from the bench. I watch from afar as Alex Morgan scores, then England scores, then Christen Press scores: joy. I eventually sub into the game, a role not at all unfamiliar to me, and try my very best not to mess anything up. There’s a clear foul against me while I have the ball — no call — and England’s off on the counterattack: stress.

The margins get smaller and smaller with every passing minute in the World Cup. Joy, stress, joy, stress.

Overwhelmingly, though, I felt prepared. I think that’s something I took for granted at the time, the feeling that I knew exactly what I should do in any given moment of the game. We had gone over goal kicks and throw-ins as set pieces with the same intensity and precision that we went over corners and free kicks. I knew how to behave while up a goal at the end of the game — ball out wide, to the corners, slow things down — and what not to do when down a goal (don’t let the other team hold the ball up in the corner, don’t let any time go to waste). It doesn’t mean I executed everything perfectly, but we could all recognize a mistake and identify what went wrong. That made it possible during games to problem solve and easy during film sessions after the game to take accountability for mistakes. “Yes, I was in the wrong position here, that’s my fault and it won’t happen again.”

That’s what it takes to reach this stage in the tournament. Twenty-three players understanding all of those details that make up a 90-plus-minute match and when to do what.

After we beat England, I have such a vivid memory of dancing with Emily Sonnett in the locker room. We had so much adrenaline. We played music, we stood on the tables, we threw water all around. Eventually, Dawn Scott (our high-performance director) had to come into the room to tone us down and get us out the door and onto the bus.


There was another game still to be played.

I remember feeling in the following days like there was no way we could lose now. We were set to face the Netherlands and my family were on their way back to France to watch the final after having gone home briefly to check in with work. The team was staying in Lyon. After the semifinal, we had a few birthdays within the group, so we had Funfetti cake in the meal room and relished the fact that we were about to compete in the final.

We kept calling it “Worlds” and calling each other our “22 best friends”. We were making it feel like a sleepaway cheerleading camp and, hilariously, it was working! It was the most fun thing I’ve ever gotten to do. We had this huge, potentially life-changing game looming and, of course, training and film were very serious and very professional. At the same time, the team had this carefree energy. Worlds finals ’19!

With the final on July 7, we also celebrated the 4th of July with a cookout. The team sat around big tables and shared hamburgers, macaroni and cheese and, as always, Drip-Drop hydration packets. In the least corny way possible, it felt like a weird but perfect family gathering, with assistant coach Tony Gustavsson putting on some kind of Uncle Sam/USA performance that none of us really knew how to respond to. Tony’s Swedish, if you didn’t know. In retrospect, it was a brilliant effort to make us all laugh during a stressful time — something our staff felt was important and always made an effort to do.

With so many days between the semifinal and the final, I remember having an afternoon free to go for a walk with my husband and get away from the team hotel for a little while. It felt so good to have a moment of peace and normalcy amidst the chaos, stress, and intensity that was the month-long tournament. That day was really special as I had a few moments to appreciate the accomplishment as an individual person. In all the years and months leading up to this World Cup, for some truly crazy reason, I had envisioned myself starting the final. I finally admitted to myself that I somehow always knew I would get here, that I had it in me to be on this team and be an important part of it.

It’s difficult to explain why this alone felt like such a monumental feat, that I would start in a World Cup final and believe that I deserved it. It’s a testament to the internal competition on the USWNT and how much respect I have for my teammates to consider just starting the game such an accomplishment on its own. Being a part of this team is that special. Not only do you have to be good enough to get there, you have to fight to stay there and fight to play, always.

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Sam Mewis and the U.S. starters ahead of the 2019 final. (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

I don’t remember too many details about the day of the final, or even the bus ride to the stadium. I went through my normal routines, listening to my gameday soundtrack that included a wild range of songs — “Mr. November” by The National, “Passing Through a Screen Door” by The Wonder Years, “Middle Child” by J. Cole, to name a few.


I remember moments in the game. Pinoe scoring her PK. Misplacing a pass while I was out wide in the first half. Stealing the ball from a Netherlands player. Losing the ball (the shame!), Crystal Dunn getting it back (good job, Crys!), me giving it to Rose (here, you take it), watching…

When Rose scored, my brain couldn’t compute what was happening. I didn’t even celebrate with the team. I stood at the top of the box with my hands on my head in complete and utter disbelief. My jaw dropped. I think Julie thought I was having a panic attack because she came up behind me and was like, “Everything is OK, Sam, we scored.” I don’t even know what happened next. But somehow my body kept going.

As the seconds ticked down, we were up 2-0 and the inevitable victory was indeed inevitable. I started to feel the corners of my mouth curl up moments before the ref blew the whistle.

They presented us with 2019 jerseys that read “Champions” on the back. There was a fourth gold star above the U.S. crest and when I saw it I was so emotional. I couldn’t believe that this crest I’d looked at my whole life was forever changed by something I had taken part in. I felt like a part of history. That fourth star will always be on the jersey, even when all the members of that 2019 team have moved on.

That jersey still hangs at my house, though there is neon green silly string all over it. The locker room celebrations remain one of the happiest memories of my soccer career. I felt such a sense of belonging and connection with the entire team — the players, the coaches, the support staff. We had all given a piece of ourselves to win and we all got something truly special in return. In true Mewis fashion, I celebrated by drinking beers, crying, dancing, and screaming “Teenage Dirtbag” with the support staff. Celebration songs can take some twists and turns, but a good singalong always does the trick for me.

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Abby Dahlkemper and Sam Mewis (Catherine Ivill – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

When I look at England and Spain, I see the opportunity before them as I saw it for myself. I feel excited for them, stressed for them, envious of them. But there is no doubt in my mind that these players have gone through some sh*t to get here. They’ve given pieces of themselves to reach this moment, made difficult decisions, and experienced the combination of joy and stress that only the World Cup can stir up.

It’s possible that these players will never be in this position again. Making a World Cup roster, through all the possibilities of injury, coach’s preference, and other extenuating circ*mstances is already incredibly difficult. Getting to the final presents an even smaller window. The World Cup is truly the pinnacle of our sport, and the opportunity in front of these players is one that they will relish and remember forever.


They’ve all made it this far. That next victory feels like a tangible thing, like all the hard work and momentum will carry you to it. But the heartbreaking thing is, for the 23 players on one of the teams, what feels inevitable will be just out of reach.

And for the team that wins, some unsolicited celebration advice: mix in a water!

(Top photo: Naomi Baker – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

Sam Mewis: What it's like to play in a World Cup final (4)Sam Mewis: What it's like to play in a World Cup final (5)

US International midfielder Sam Mewis is currently playing for Kansas City Current. She has previously represented North Carolina Courage and Manchester City. In 2011 she was named ESPN RISE All-American after scoring 30 goals and assisting 8. Follow Sam on Twitter @SammyMewey

Sam Mewis: What it's like to play in a World Cup final (2024)


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