The United States were able to edge out the Netherlands 2-0 in a final that saw the American women dominate much of the gameplay en route to repeat as the champions of the world.
The USWNT had to run through a gauntlet after two rather easy group stage matches, taking out some of Europe’s finest team on European soil. Jill Ellis’ side relied on its physicality and fitness to give itself an edge on tournament play, in which the players play every three to four days – a tall order for any player.
The triumph is obviously a proud achievement for the United States. However, the rest of the world, especially the Europeans, are certainly closing the gap in women’s soccer.
The United States got a head start over the world with the introduction of Title IX in 1972 and a very unique youth sports program. The collegiate system for athletes is very much an anomaly belonging to the U.S.
Most of the world would develop the youth sports scene by way of academies. They are much akin to the clubs you would find in America, but most of them are direct delegates from the professional clubs.
Players like Mexican soccer star Giovani dos Santos, who plays for LA Galaxy of the MLS, came by way of the famed La Masia Barcelona academy.
When the NCAA began to sponsor women’s soccer in 1982, the American system became more systematic and much like other sports like football and basketball, became the pipeline for the stars of the sport.
The European way, though, is now expanding quicker than the Americans’ did. This has to hinge on the inherent level of professional soccer across the board. While the U.S. have the athletic advantage, the Europeans have the infrastructural advantage.
The biggest culprit of soccer development of the United States is the instability of the leagues. Major League Soccer was barely hanging on up until a recent boom of soccer fans, and the women’s league has folded twice since 2001 before the current National Women’s Soccer League was established in 2012. There certainly are options for young aspiring soccer players in the U.S., but it simply does not compare to Europe for both men and women.
Despite the late start, the women’s soccer scene in Europe has a much more reliable resource in the existing men’s teams.
Take France and England, the two teams that came closest to derailing the USWNT, as examples. Most of the standout clubs in those leagues happen to have a successful male counterpart as well.
Lyon has won the past four women’s European Champions League with French starters like captain Amandine Henry and Eugenie Le Sommer alongside the best player in the world in Ada Hegerberg. The team also loaned over Alex Morgan for a stretch to bolster their attack. Arsenal, with Dutch stars Danielle van de Donk and Vivianne Miedema, and Manchester City, featuring a primarily British squad with Steph Houghton, Jill Scott and Ellen White led the Women’s Super League.
After the month of watching the Women’s World Cup, I think it is clear that the gap is closing between the USWNT and the rest of the world. The U.S. has the fitness advantage over everyone still, but some of the teams have surpassed the Americans from a tactical standpoint.
Given, the Americans employ their control over the games as a tactic over a very intricate system.
Jill Ellis did get some occasional grief for being conservative at times after the two demolitions against Thailand and Chile. The team is content to absorb pressure and look for opportunities on the break and frankly, this is just playing into the physical advantage that the U.S. inherently has.
This is actually much akin to Jose Mourinho’s style of play when he ruled over the soccer stratosphere, and it is way more important to play to the strengths in a tournament bracket, where one loss or an unlucky bounce means that you’re out.
That hand was also forced because of the rather unique situation in the U.S. The NWSL does not have the big market teams to absorb a good amount of USWNT players to play together like Lyon or Manchester City does. The players obviously had vast experience playing with each other, but this setup accentuates the team chemistry with identified roles.
Looking at other teams, they all seem to have their own distinct styles. England seemed to have brought in the old Manchester United style with wing play and a complete striker under Phil Neville, while the Dutch will always have that hint of total football that legend Johan Cruyff brought to the world.
Looking at the bigger picture here, the American soccer scene will need changes to combat the improving world women’s soccer scene, while improving the men’s team as well. That could go from completely revamping the league play to match the style of Europe to reworking the inherent youth system.
The problem will undoubtedly reach out to bigger issues like pay inequality, which is another interesting situation to look into. While the American men’s players are paid by their clubs and national teams to a lesser extent, U.S. Soccer pays the year-around salary for American women players, be it during NWSL play or national team play. This also crosses borders to a very complicated salary situations in American soccer leagues.
Whichever way the management of the U.S. soccer scene shall opt to take, it will still be a crucial juncture for the sport as a whole. The women’s can’t afford to live off of the existing success and will have to continue improving against the evolving rest of the world, while the men’s need to figure out a way to not waste this current crop of standout youth.
An interesting few years are on the horizon for U.S. Soccer.