The strongest testament to the United States’ comprehensive supremacy in women’s soccer is how unspectacular their successful defense of the World Cup title was this summer.
The U.S. were never great against serious competition, regularly allowed themselves to be outplayed for large stretches out of a strange commitment to conservatism, and didn’t feature a single individual who put together a tournament-long transcendent performance. In spite of all that, the USWNT won every single game, didn’t trail for even a single second, and while their lack of domination made the knockout rounds more stressful than the results might imply, the U.S. never had reason to fear that their dream of winning back-to-back Women’s World Cup trophies was in any real danger.
The U.S.’s iron grip on the sport for decades now, of which these consecutive World Cups are arguably the crowning achievement, is a tribute to the country’s laudable (though still deficient) commitment to taking women’s soccer seriously, and to the bountiful rewards available to those nations that do. But while the end result of the game’s most prestigious tournament signifies the continuation of American ascendency, the USWNT’s relative struggles to dominate matches and the rapid development of women’s soccer in Europe raises the question: The U.S. are on top right now, but how long can it last?
Of all the stories to emerge this World Cup, the one most indicative of the game’s future is the Netherlands’. The country’s almost-overnight transformation from complete anonymity in women’s soccer into one of the game’s best and most exciting forces is at this point famous. After never making it to a Women’s World Cup or an Olympics, the Dutch qualified for their first ever major tournament at the 2015 World Cup, their first ever European Championship just two years later in 2017, and this year made it all the way to the World Cup final. It’s the kind of seemingly instantaneous journey from irrelevance to greatness that should delight fans of the sport at large and terrify American fans in equal measure.
It’s been clear for years now that Europe was the great sleeping giant of women’s soccer, and this summer offered the strongest evidence yet that the continent has begun to wake up. Seven of the World Cup’s eight quarterfinalists hailed from Europe. Every USWNT opponent in the knockout rounds was European, and every one of them gave the U.S. serious problems. The U.S.’s enduring strength, speed, fitness, and cohesiveness advantages are still enough to power them to a title, but their margins over their opponents there are shrinking by the year, and Europe’s technical and tactical prowess has arguably already surpassed that of the Americans.
The kinds of gains things like Title IX and college scholarship–focused youth soccer made in pushing America out to its huge lead in women’s soccer in previous generations won’t be enough to stave off Europe for long. Not when Europe already has the soccer infrastructure, coaching, culture, and knowledge base to spot, cultivate, and polish truly elite players and form them into great teams as it does in the men’s game. All countries like England, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, France, etc. have to do is decide they want to get serious about women’s soccer, port all the knowledge and infrastructure they already have from men’s soccer over to the women’s version, and they’ll already be well on their way to challenging and then overtaking the U.S. The smallest alterations to the existing European soccer system, mainly just opening it up to women, can pay enormous dividends, as the Netherlands’ propulsive rise attests.
Think of what a fully realized European system can offer: promising child athletes joining academies of clubs with economic resources unfathomable by their American counterparts; players spending nearly every waking moment year-round honing their craft against the best competition, overseen by coaches with decades of experience nurturing world-class talents during the most critical athletic developmental years; young talents committing their lives to the game by turning professional as teens; a smattering of legitimate teams and leagues offering opportunities to play as a pro not too far away; domestic seasons and titles to compete for as well as the most prestigious continental trophy available to dream about; the creative stimulation and sophistication that comes from players, clubs, leagues, and countries in such close proximity collaborating and competing with each other (for further explication, read Inverting the Pyramid). All of these and more are the avenues Europe can and is already starting to open up on the path to soccer greatness.
The American system has been great, the world leader, but that probably won’t be the case in the future without major changes. Of the tons and tons of money already in women’s soccer in America, almost none of it is used all that effectively. Lots of it is squandered in the college system, which does train players with professional-type rigor, but only for four years, and starting when the players are in their late teens, already outside their most formative developmental years.
More money is wasted by U.S. Soccer, which has sought to prop up a parade of ill-fated domestic leagues, the current iteration being the NWSL, by paying the salaries of the league’s USWNT representatives while holding above those players’ heads the threat of dropping them from their lucrative positions on the national team if they don’t commit to U.S. Soccer’s favored Potemkin league—all done out of a misguided belief that the country can plug women’s soccer into the dominant American sports model and see it thrive. Without a new, holistic approach to women’s soccer—one that will probably need to merge the resources currently split between the high school, college, professional, and national team divisions of the game—the same structural limitations that have constrained the growth of men’s soccer in America will begin to constrain the competitiveness of the women’s game if Europe continues along the trajectory it currently appears on.
The future doesn’t have to be an American soccer dystopia, with the men and women both languishing behind their better trained and prepared counterparts around the globe. In the women’s game at least, the one thing America does still have over its competitors is the desire to be the best in the sport, and the noble, if seldom adhered to, ideal that women are entitled to the same athletic opportunities as men. In that sense, the U.S. wouldn’t be crazy to bet that the one thing that has done more to further the dominance of American women’s soccer than any other force—that being the rest of the world’s sexist disinterest in building up the women’s game—will continue to grant the U.S. room to dominate simply by being less shitty about women’s soccer than everywhere else.
But if the United States wants to stay the best in the world, to give players even better training and the most important ages and offer them a real chance to make a living playing the game they love and are so great at, then some serious changes are in order. A good first step would be to stop cleaving the game along gender lines, to start thinking of soccer as just soccer, and to get real about doing the things proven to create the best soccer in the world.
Error: A previous version of this post said the U.S. were the first team to win back-to-back Women’s World Cups. Germany actually did so first, in 2003 and 2007.