The head start is gone; the rest of the world has caught up.
The development system is just too inefficient.
Jill Ellis will finally get exposed.
The lingering obsession with pace, power and fitness will eventually sink the United States.
That signature American arrogance will be their undoing.
People in and around women’s soccer in the U.S. have been hearing, and saying, things like this for the better part of two decades. They’ve been saying it the past month too. There’s at least a kernel of truth in many of these sayings.
After wallowing in misogyny and institutional sexism for decades, many of the sport’s traditional hotbeds are finally waking up to the women’s game.
The American youth club soccer landscape is indeed a chaotic, cash-driven crab barrel that caters to the white and wealthy, where marginalized groups are overlooked and under-represented and culture and craftsmanship take a back seat to crass consumerist scorekeeping. College ball is a pretty hot mess, too.
Talent trumps everything
As steady as Jill Ellis’ hand has been on the helm this summer and as bought-in as her team appears, her cumulative track record remains open to examination. She still serves up several head-scratching decisions a year and she’ll always be associated with the 2016 Olympic faceplant, one of the biggest fiascoes in USWNT history. Even when she’s flawless, the fearsome riches of quality at her disposal inevitably obscure efforts to divine just what share of the credit she truly deserves.
Her charismatic, supremely talented players have built a strong case in their pursuit of gender equity from the U.S. Soccer Federation. Nonetheless, they work full-time in the most advanced and lavishly-supported women’s national team program on the planet. Occasionally, they come off sounding tone-deaf about that and their place in the wider world of WoSo.
So yes, there are complicated and imperfect aspects to the USWNT as the defending world champs approach the summit again this weekend. Their sport is evolving quickly and there are absolutely no guarantees that what has worked up to now will continue to work into the future.
And in all likelihood, all that won’t matter when they face the Netherlands in Lyon, France in the final of the 2019 Women’s World Cup on Sunday.
An imperfect system that’s still too big to fail
“We win any way possible and it is the DNA of this team to win no matter what,” U.S. center back Abby Dahlkemper told reporters earlier this week.
The USWNT are a machine. They’re a thoroughbred competitive powerhouse a quarter-century in the making that has in recent years managed to refresh itself without losing hold of the established magic that’s been passed down from generation to generation. The depth of the player pool is the envy of the world. Each roster is a shark’s mouth of gleaming, razor-sharp teeth with endless rows of replacements waiting to push forward to fill any gap.
The program sits atop an enormous, cutthroat soccer pyramid founded on the sheer overwhelming numerical superiority of some 2 million registered players from youth to adult across the richest nation on the planet.
It’s prominently failed to value and mobilize the country’s Hispanic, immigrant and blue-collar populations. This has allowed a tradition of direct, often brutally physical play to take root and shortsightedly severed the elite tiers of youth play from the dominant U.S. cultural paradigm of high-school sports. And American women’s soccer can still call on an incredible depth and array of resources – human, infrastructure and beyond.
Dozens of thousands of youth clubs and coaches dot the map and competitive leagues abound. There are about 600 NCAA Division I and II collegiate women’s soccer programs, offering thousands of athletic scholarships and hundreds of quasi-professional, highly-competitive training environments. And there are many more schools at the NAIA and D3 levels. (Even if many of the governing body’s outdated rules and regulations are an active hindrance to nurturing new generations of modern footballers.)
It’s run on a shoestring and troubling threadbare in important ways. But the federation-affiliated professional league, NWSL, is the most fiercely competitive top flight in the world. It’s about to get it’s time to shine too, with a newly minted ESPN TV contract. The league is cauldron of demanding soccer and dedicated pros where even poverty-line contracts are keenly pursued and USWNTers past, present and future vie for the attention of Ellis and her staff.
And on those rare occasions when the senior squad fail to perform –- like against Sweden in Brasilia three years ago — or the infamous 4-0 WWC semifinal loss to Brazil in Hangzhou, China in 2007 — or the epic 2011 final loss to Japan –- their adversaries still must get everything right to defeat them. The margins for error are so big on one side, and so tiny on the other.
“We step on the field every time and we know we’re going to get the [opponent’s] best game and we have to play to our very best,” veteran defender Kelley O’Hara said this week. “I don’t think we ever underestimate anything. I think that’s what what people project onto us.”
Culture eats strategy for breakfast
Culture, we are often told, eats strategy for breakfast. And as often as Ellis, April Heinrichs, Sunil Gulati, the mandarins of the NCAA and USSF boardrooms, various figures in various youth organizations and other powers that be may have goofed up on strategic stuff over the years, the cumulative size, history and momentum of women’s soccer’s place in the United States endures.
The intoxicating allure of the beautiful game is that any team can win on any given day, and that should cheer both the marked underdogs in orange and the neutral viewers on Sunday. What’s just as liable to chill their hearts, however, is the a sprawling, star-spangled stack of institutional advantages piled atop the opposite side of the ledger.
And those are probably not going to fade away any time soon.