REIMS, France — The chasm between women’s soccer elite and developing programs has narrowed some in recent years, but in many embarrassing cases, the division remains as wide as oceans, even in a World Cup.
That gap was on full and frightening display Tuesday as the U.S. national team began its quest for a second consecutive trophy with a 13-0 demolition of Thailand — the most lopsided victory in World Cup history for men or women.
Alex Morgan equaled the U.S. record with five goals, and Rose Lavelle and Samantha Mewis scored two apiece as the top-ranked Americans surpassed Germany’s 11-0 rout of Argentina at the 2007 women’s tournament.
Nine is the largest margin in men’s competition, recorded three times.
“It’s how you want to start a tournament,” U.S. Coach Jill Ellis said. “You want to have that feeling. ... It is about building momentum. ... I’m not saying a big result like this is the be-all, end-all but it does light a little bit of a fire in terms of [players’] confidence.”
But the score also raised questions about whether the three-time champions needed to continue hunting for goals — it was 7-0 early in the second half — and whether the women’s game has evolved enough that teams such as Thailand belong.
Ellis and all the players agreed that, even with a giant lead, they needed to continue to attack.
“To be respectful to opponents is to play hard against opponents,” Ellis said. “I don’t find it my job to harness my players and rein them in because this is what they dreamt about. This is it for them. This is a world championship.”
Unlike other sports, where a coach will pull starters during a blowout, soccer is limited to three substitutions. And it’s against the U.S. team’s nature to slow down or stop playing at a high rate.
“You don’t want to take your foot off the pedal because you want to respect the game and play them as you would play anyone else,” defender Kelley O’Hara said. “It is a tournament. Goal differential matters. You can’t feel bad for scoring as many goals as possible.”
Thailand’s previous meeting with the United States resulted in a 9-0 defeat. And after conceding three in the first half Tuesday, the Thais were overwhelmed in a second half that spun out of control quickly.
The final whistle was the sound of mercy, for the Americans were primed to continue scoring.
Thai Coach Nuengrutai Srathongvian was asked about the margin and whether the Americans exhibited sportsmanship.
“Everybody is following the rules. We have to accept the U.S. team was very good today. We don’t have any excuse.”
Asked about the number of teams welcomed to the World Cup — the tournament expanded to 24 from 16 in 2015 — Morgan said she hopes the gap will continue to narrow through investment and outside pressure.
“For these 24 teams, it’s a great opportunity for women to showcase what they’ve worked their entire lives toward,” she said. “Not every federation gives the same financial effort to their women’s side, and that’s unfortunate.
“My hope is we eventually have 32 teams, but also that encourages FIFA [the sport’s world governing body] to put a little pressure on their respective federations to put more effort into their women’s side.”
With one goal in the first half and four in the second, Morgan became the first U.S. player since Michelle Akers in 1991 to score five in a World Cup match. Several others have netted five in other competitions.
“Alex getting four goals is crazy,” Mewis said.
When she was corrected, Mewis’ eyes widened and she exclaimed: “Five goals? Holy ...”
Indeed, it was hard to keep track. Six goals came in the final 20 minutes (including stoppage time, when substitute Carli Lloyd scored).
“Goals matter” in a tournament that uses scoring margin and total goals as a tiebreaker, Lloyd said. “We’ve got to keep that throttle down.”
This match never figured to be competitive, what with the United States seeking its fourth championship and the Thais playing their fourth World Cup match ever.
Once the Americans found their groove — it didn’t take long — they were relentless and ruthless before 18,591 at Stade Auguste-Delaune.
A 3-0 halftime lead turned into a seven-goal margin nine minutes into the second half. Lindsey Horan, Megan Rapinoe, Mallory Pugh and Lloyd also scored for the United States, which has won seven consecutive matches, the past five without conceding a goal.
Morgan’s third goal, a 17-yard shot after using clever footwork in tight space, exceeded the previous U.S. team scoring mark in a World Cup of 7-0 against Taiwan in the 1991 quarterfinals.
Chile — a first-time entry that gave World Cup regular Sweden fits Tuesday before falling, 2-0 — will brace for the United States on Sunday in Paris. A U.S. victory would secure passage to the round of 16.
Not that that’s been in any doubt.
“It is about mentality and it is about confidence, so getting off on the right foot is important,” Ellis said. “The reality is we’ve got more to do.”