Jaelene Hinkle is probably the best left back available to the United States women’s national team. The USWNT currently has an injury crisis at fullback. Hinkle is also vocally homophobic and trying to make a team that has a gay coach, several queer players, and a lot of LGBT fans.
Last weekend, for the first time in over a year, Hinkle was called into the USWNT camp. She was only a part of the team for three days before U.S. Soccer announced that she would not be a part of the final roster for the Tournament of Nations. These two decisions — to call up a homophobic player who previously refused a call-up, then cut her just three days into camp — were strange. The former angered LGBT fans of the team, while the latter was just downright confusing.
When reached by phone on Monday, a U.S. Soccer spokesperson said that the decision to cut Hinkle was purely a soccer decision, adding that all roster decisions are entirely about performance and that there had been no personal issues between anyone during training sessions.
But it’s hard to make a true soccer case for Hinkle’s exclusion. And it’s even harder to justify the betrayal of LGBT fans over a three-day tryout for a player that USWNT manager Jill Ellis apparently doesn’t rate very highly.
How we got here
In June of 2017, Jaelene Hinkle withdrew from a United States women’s national team camp for “personal reasons.” That happened during LGBT Pride month, and the USWNT was set to wear jerseys with rainbow numbers to show support for the LGBT community.
This year, in an interview with The 700 Club, Hinkle confirmed that she withdrew from the squad because she felt that wearing the pride jersey would have conflicted with her religious beliefs. “I felt so convicted in my spirit that it wasn’t my job to wear this jersey,” Hinkle told the show. In her first game after the interview, Hinkle was booed by Portland Thorns fans every time she touched the ball.
Fans suspected Hinkle’s reasons for withdrawing from the squad even before her The 700 Club comments. Mere minutes after the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which required all states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Hinkle sent the following tweet:
This world is falling farther and farther away from God... All that can be done by believers is to continue to pray.— Jaelene Hinkle (@JaeHinkle_15) June 26, 2015
Following her voluntary withdrawal from the USWNT squad, Hinkle was not called up again for over a year, despite performing well for the Courage. But after 2018’s pride month promotion, Hinkle was given another three-day shot to make the team, and was apparently unable to impress Ellis.
Is there a pure soccer case for Hinkle’s exclusion?
Fullback is a problem position for the USWNT at the moment. First choice starter Kelley O’Hara is out injured, Taylor Smith has been in shaky form for the Washington Spirit, and Sofia Huerta’s inability to get regular time at fullback for the Chicago Red Stars or Houston Dash appears to have jeopardized her chances of sticking with the national team. Veterans Meghan Klingenberg and Ali Krieger appear to have been frozen out permanently. Jill Ellis’ options aren’t great.
At least, the options aren’t great as long as Hinkle is unavailable due to her personal beliefs. But Hinkle’s beliefs didn’t prevent Ellis from bringing her into camp. And based on Ellis’ professed desire for attacking fullbacks who cover a ton of ground, there isn’t a better pure tactical fit available than Hinkle.
Over the past four years, Hinkle has been the starting left back for the Western New York Flash and North Carolina Courage. Her current club manager, Courage head coach Paul Riley, can’t understand why Ellis wouldn’t include Hinkle in her squad if she was willing to call up Hinkle in the first place. “She’s been the best left back in the league this year, of that there’s absolutely no question,” Riley tells SB Nation.
“She hasn’t had a bad game to be honest with you, I can’t recall a bad game all season,” Riley continues. “At this level, that’s unbelievable. The consistency is something she never really had, but this year she’s had it.”
Riley is obviously biased — he wants his players to find success at international level — but he’s got one hell of a track record when it comes to figuring out how to utilize players in the USWNT pool. The core of the team that is now the Courage won the National Women’s Soccer League title as the Flash in 2016, then finished runners-up with the league’s best record in their first year as the Courage in 2017. This season, the Courage have a 14-1-3 record and lead NWSL by 16 points. Seven current Courage players and two others who were traded from the club this offseason have been called up by the USWNT in the past year.
A lot of stats also suggest that Riley is right. Hinkle is the only fullback in the NWSL with four assists this season. The only other one with three — Seattle’s Steph Catley — plays her international soccer for Australia. Hinkle is beating out her club teammate, right back Merritt Mathias, as well as Chicago Red Stars left back Casey Short — the two players who play fullback for their clubs that made this USWNT squad — in interceptions per 90 minutes, successful tackle percentage, crossing accuracy, successful dribbles per 90 minutes, and final third passes per 90 minutes.
Distance covered stats aren’t available, but Hinkle has more touches in the box than Short or Matthias, so she’s doing well in that area, too. Riley believes the same: “She quite often runs the whole distance down the field and delivers the final ball to the forwards.”
Riley also doesn’t believe that Ellis was able to make a fair evaluation of Hinkle during the time she was in camp.
“You can’t look at a player over three days and make a decision on the player, not for me,” Riley says. “I think they need to be in camp for a couple of weeks to get a good feel for a player and whether they fit in or not, what their strengths and weaknesses are compared to the group’s strengths and weaknesses. I don’t think that can happen in three days.”
Hinkle’s call-up alienated many of the USWNT’s biggest fans
U.S. Soccer, between its history of fielding gay players and its desire to make money, would really like to sell some pride merch and appear supportive of the LGBT community.
But the USWNT either didn’t anticipate how much Hinkle’s call-up would hurt their LGBT fans, or they didn’t care. I reached out on Twitter to gay USWNT fans who purchased the team’s pride gear, and spoke to three of them about how Hinkle’s return to the USWNT made them feel.
“Betrayed, lied to, used. Like the USWNT was using pride only as something to make money and not that they actually cared about the community,” is how Zoe Auxier says she felt when she learned about Hinkle’s call-up. “I feel cheated out of accurate and positive representation, especially with how big of a platform the team has to make a positive impact for the LGBT community.”
“I would have been mad regardless of when it was, but the fact that the roster dropped 18 days after the end of Pride month was an added bit of hypocrisy,” says Kelly Trione. “It just shows that they’re full of crap, they may legally be a non-profit, but it’s all about money and they didn’t even try and pretend it wasn’t.”
That Hinkle expressed her beliefs on The 700 Club was a point of contention as well.
“She has never once acknowledged the humanity and struggle of LGBT people, and instead used a platform which actively demonizes the LGBT community,” Becca Homa says. “I’m most concerned with the message it sends to young queer fans and players within the U.S. youth system. They shouldn’t for one second feel any discomfort about who they are or question if they deserve the same respect.”
So what could U.S. Soccer have possibly been thinking?
U.S. Soccer would like us to believe that Hinkle was called up, played in camp for three days, and then sent home entirely for soccer reasons. If we take its statements at face value, we’re forced to conclude that Jill Ellis has a nonsensical method for evaluating fullbacks. Hinkle is the best American left back in NWSL by most empirical measures, and by the eyes of the club coach who has developed the most USWNT players during this World Cup cycle.
If Ellis simply doesn’t rate Hinkle highly enough to give her a legitimate shot in camp to beat out Short and some players who don’t usually play left back, then why was she called up in the first place? Why spit on your queer fans, who may now feel like you stole their money as part of a dirty trick, if Hinkle wasn’t really in the plans?
People at U.S. Soccer should have been well aware of the backlash they’d receive if Hinkle returned to the team. The way she makes queer fans feel has been clear for a while now. U.S. Soccer was seemingly willing to hurt their fans in that way, then not even follow through with putting Hinkle on the field. They couldn’t have handled this situation much worse.