CARY, N.C. — How are we not talking about this team all the time? Sustained dominance is easy to take for granted, sure. And as far as it has come in recent decades soccer still isn’t close to leading the sports conversation in the USA. These are answers, and they aren’t wrong, but they mostly evade the question. How is it possible that the United States women’s national soccer team, the top-ranked squad in the world from a program that has been the dominant force in women’s international soccer for its entire jarringly-short history, is still overlooked and undersold? The explanation is a lot older than women’s international soccer, but it’s straightforward and right there in the team’s name.
On Thursday, the USWNT took their first step toward the 2019 World Cup when they bowled over Mexico 6-0 in the group stage of the CONCACAF Women’s Championship. The U.S. controlled 70 percent of the possession, and from my vantage point in the stadium it felt like more. They were stifling and appeared to be everywhere, even when they weren’t pressing as aggressively as they sometimes do. Short of picking off a few ill-advised passes out of the back, Mexico rarely had chances to breathe, let alone create.
It was only 1-0 at halftime, but the U.S. scored in third minute before Mexico had even seen the ball, and at no point was the game ever competitive. The U.S. took 23 shots; Mexico generated three, the only one on goal was fired directly at keeper Alyssa Naeher from long distance. With the obligatory grain of FIFA rankings salt, Mexico is ranked as the third best team out of eight in the tournament, and the 24th best in the world. The result moved the all-time record between the teams to 35-1-1 in favor of the U.S.
On Sunday, the USWNT faced the Panama in their second match of the tournament in Cary, N.C. They made nine changes to their starting lineup in service of resting their starters and giving their bench players some time on the field. Unfortunately for Panama, the bench players are all assassins, too, and the results were similar. It was 1-0 in minute five, 4-0 by halftime, and Carli Lloyd had her hat trick by the 48th minute. Only a spectacular effort from Panama’s 17-year-old goalkeeper, Yenith Bailey, held the final count to 5-0.
The two wins and a plus-11 goal differential all but guaranteed the USWNT a spot in the semi-finals, before even facing Trinidad and Tobago to finish out the group on Wednesday. A Mexico win later Sunday evening sealed it. Any single win in the semis, the third-place game, or—if they came in 4th—a playoff game vs. CONMEBOL’s Argentina, would earn the USWNT an invitation to the World Cup. Baring a meltdown of significantly greater proportions than the one the U.S. men managed in 2018 qualifying, the U.S. will once again have a team in the World Cup, and once again they will be one of the favorites to win it.
Statistics can’t encompass the experience of watching Lindsey Horan do absolutely everything that can be done on a soccer field with an unsettling level of conviction, and we’ve yet to quantify exactly what it is about Tobin Heath that made the two fans next to me nervously giggle every time she touched the ball, but the numbers this team has put up are absurd. Here is a list of some random facts that all individually seem impossible:
- In 2018 the team is 13-0-2. They have a +38 goal differential during that time, averaging 3.2 goals a game and giving up .67. They have only allowed 2 goals twice, in 4-2 and 6-2 victories over Japan and Mexico, respectively.
- The last time they were held scoreless was also their last loss, 0-1 to Australia in July of 2017, 14 months and 24 games ago.
- “The USA is 29-1-0 all-time in CONCACAF Women’s World Cup qualifying, including a 15-0-0 mark at home.”
- From 2012 to 2014 the USWNT strung together a 43-match unbeaten streak.
- Since 2003, when FIFA started keeping international rankings, they have never been ranked lower than No. 2 in the world.
- In the six Summer Olympics that have featured women’s soccer—which unlike the men’s side, does not have age restrictions and is considered the genuine article—the U.S. has taken home 4 golds and a silver. They had been to the final in every tournament until 2016, when Sweden bounced them from the quarterfinals on penalties.
- The U.S. has won three of the seven World Cups held since the tournament was started in 1991. They have never finished worse than third place.
They are a juggernaut by every imaginable metric, and America almost certainly does not deserve them. The current iteration of this team is not only great, but one that refuses to run some attritive, 10-defenders behind the ball system, or grind out lunch-pail wins. They do it all with sauce.
Watching Megan Rapinoe orchestrate well into her 30s is one of the great joys in sports, and even more so when she’s tapping into the astral connection between her and Alex Morgan. Rose Lavelle seems to be coming into her own, and her own apparently exists somewhere in the Shooters Shoot universe that people like J.R. Smith and Diana Taurasi occupy; against Mexico she pinged one off the post from deep. Crystal Dunn, asked to adjust to an unfamiliar position, has met the challenge with a tireless work rate, burning from endline to endline up the wing. There’s something like this to say about everyone on the roster, from NWSL MVP Horan to speed kills monument Mallory Pugh. And God, Tobin Heath. When Heath receives the ball and surveys the defense, she doesn’t appear to be looking for seams, but for targets to demoralize.
The USWNT didn’t even exist until 1985, a century after the creation of the men’s team. Since then they’ve enjoyed a fraction of the support and resources that’s been allocated for their male counterparts, and are still paid less than them. What little equity the team has achieved had to be fought for, tooth an nail. The breakout victory that put them in the public consciousness—along with the image of Brandi Chastain tearing off her jersey and flexing after burying the Cup-winning penalty—didn’t arrive until the World Cup of 1999. Despite her father, John, working internationally as a coach for the British government, current USWNT coach Jill Ellis didn’t even have the opportunity to play organized soccer as a child until her family moved to the U.S. in 1981. Ellis is only 52, but there was no organized soccer for girls in England in the ‘70s.
Every aspect of soccer in the United States has grown by leaps and bounds since Ellis finally got a chance to put on an actual jersey. Our youth player development needs work, especially when it comes to knocking down barriers to entry, but there are now leagues for kids and even adults of all levels nationwide. Today we have access to watch top quality international and club games from around the globe, on platforms including network TV. As far as Major League Soccer has to go to compete with the world’s elite leagues (a very long way), it now features a totally decent caliber of play. The wages and quality of life standards for most NWSL players are still abysmally low, but the fact that a women’s league, populated by our entire national team and many of the best players in the world, is alive, kicking, and has major broadcast deals, is a sign of hope. The men’s national team went from decades of being unable to qualify for a World Cup, to being the object of scandal when they don’t. As much as it’s all still a work in progress, the progress has been amazing.
But the constant focus on American soccer’s growth and shortcomings tends to obscure an important truth: We already have world-class soccer in the U.S., and we have had it since Carin Jennings, Michelle Akers, and their teammates brought home the inaugural women’s World Cup in 1991. Year after year, the best players in the world are out there playing in a jersey with our flag on it, and it’s good as hell.