There’s a unique frustration to watching Team USA men’s basketball in the Olympics after the world caught up. Yes, America has a better collection of raw talent, and when motivated, and conducted like an actual team, they can come away with gold. However, it’s always a slog at some point, with savvy European countries making Team USA look like a college powerhouse, littered with one-and-dones, slugging it out with a grizzled mid-major.
Everybody who’s ever filled out a March Madness bracket can relate to that feeling, which is exactly how it felt watching the USWNT on Wednesday. After the Netherlands scored at the 17-minute mark, the US spent the rest of the half playing soccer’s version of hero ball. There was zero poise in the attacking third, and often whichever player finally found the ball, they bulled ahead like a freshman big man without touch, a handle, or post moves.
I’ve watched enough soccer to know that as effortless as possession can look in one half, it likely won’t be that way in the other, but the US were directionless, attempting passes without forethought, or creativity. It was the kind of performance that fans of Brazil, France, Spain, and other men’s world soccer powers would lament, panic, and lose their shit about. (For a full, coherent breakdown on how the Dutch were frustrating the US, you can read Sam Fels’ recap.)
You knew within the first five minutes of the second half that the US were going to level it, and it was nice watching the athleticism they rely on so much show itself. The issue, and smarter people than I have been saying this since before the tournament, is it’s no longer possible to glide into women’s soccer and out-physical teams.
The talent gap has narrowed, and tactics can make up the rest. I’m going to go back to basketball, because that’s the analogy I’m most comfortable with: Why do you think Evan Fournier looks like Pistol Pete on the French national team, but can’t see the floor for the Knicks? Other than better comfort, fit, and trust, France is better organized.
That’s what happened in the first half to the USWNT, and thankfully they were able to muscle their way out of it, but I can’t be the only one who thinks Sophia Smith and Trinity Rodman might not be able to fully find their footing this World Cup? In one-v-one situations, they clearly terrify opponents, which is probably why the Dutch tried to avoid those scenarios. They will have moments of brilliance, but their sheer speed, and skill serves more to tease fans than as a consistent approach to scoring at this stage of their careers.
There are casual supporters who think the USWNT is a plug-and-play program capable of winning the World Cup as easily as the past two teams, but that reality appears to be dissipating if it hasn’t done so already. As the tourney rolls forward, the margin for error decreases, and being a second too late, or taking an unnecessary touch, won’t be as easily forgiven.
The part I’m actually enjoying about the rest of the sport catching up is the soccer of it all. Basketball success/struggles are different because the belief is that if the best American NBA players show up, we’re going to win. Call it American exceptionalism, hubris, or whatever you want, yet having a healthy full set heading into a men’s World Cup doesn’t guarantee anything.
As Americans, we’re catching up on a lot of aspects of soccer fandom, but one I’ve always wondered about was that feeling of being a disgruntled German or Argentinian, upset about an objectively talented team not meeting near-impossible expectations. It’s not all that fun, but it is a new emotion that I’ve never experienced before, so there’s that.