The World Is Catching Up
Americans have taken the dominance of the Women's National Team for granted.
The Atlantic’s Franklin Foer reflects on “The End of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Dominance,” concluding that it’s actually a very good thing.
For those not paying attention, the team, which won the first Women’s World Cup in 1991 and has won four of the eight previous iterations and has never finished outside the top three, barely qualified for the knockout round in this tournament (albeit from a ridiculously tough group that featured the two finalists from the 2019 Cup). If they don’t get much better, fast, they’ll lose to Sweden Sunday.
If the U.S. no longer has its mantle, that is because other countries have swiped it. Brazil, England, Spain, and even Colombia have stitched together performances at this World Cup that have exuded old-fashioned American imperiousness. These performances aren’t anomalous. The global women’s game is in the middle of a revolution, whereby its underlying economics are rapidly changing. For generations, American women have flourished because of their country’s unique sporting culture. This tournament, however, has made evident that the virtues of that model are becoming outmoded.
So much of the historic success of the U.S. women’s team is tethered to a noble piece of legislation: Title IX, a 1972 amendment to the Higher Education Act, requiring federally funded universities to treat male and female athletes as equal. This was, indeed, American exceptionalism. The U.S. was one of the few countries that, in nearly every sport, exploited college as a primary pipeline for developing professional athletes regardless of gender. The American university system went on to produce a wide pool of female soccer talent, as it supplied the best coaching in the world at the time. Young women around the globe who wanted to overcome the misogyny of soccer culture in their home country found the best opportunities in places like the University of North Carolina or Stanford.
But, long story short, this advantage hasn’t translated into a women’s professional league with a huge following. The game is wildly more popular just about everywhere else and, while they were slow to grasp that fans would watch women’s soccer, once they did they were able to glom onto the infrastructure and fan bases of the men’s leagues.
In most crucial ways, European women’s squads still receive second-class treatment—women are paid a fraction of what the men are, and they are forced to play on inferior fields—but a growth trajectory is visible. Last year, Barcelona’s and Real Madrid’s women’s teams squared off in front of 91,000 fans. The final of the Women’s Champions League, in the Netherlands, sold out the 34,000-seat stadium. There are rarely moments in the U.S. women’s professional league that can quite match this scale.
The investment in the European game is visible on the pitch too. Players join club-run academies at young ages, where they receive superior coaching—a higher level of technical skills and tactical awareness—to what they’d find in the United States. (The most technically gifted player in this year’s World Cup is the Spanish midfielder Aitana Bonmatí, a product of the Barcelona youth setup.) And the game is not just the province of upper-middle-class families, who, in America, might pay thousands of dollars to youth soccer clubs in the hopes that their kid might win a precious place at an elite university. Perhaps the ultimate acknowledgement of an emerging European superiority is that American clubs have begun edging toward its model. Both the Portland Thorns and the Washington Spirit, in the National Women’s Soccer League, have given contracts to 15-year-old players, bypassing the old collegiate system.
In a way, the development of the global game is the inevitable, self-defeating by-product of America’s idealism in women’s soccer. The U.S. Women’s National Team always presented itself as a city on a hill, a beacon of what happens when girls are given access to the same resources as boys. For years, it rightfully claimed to be battling the entrenched misogyny of the game’s overlords. At this World Cup, the mediocre results of the team so far might actually reflect one of their greatest victories after all.
The USWNT faces the same conundrum as the US Men’s Basketball Team: anything less than winning it all is viewed as a failure. They won the inaugural cup in 1991 won again in 1999, 2015, and 2019.
But Foer is right: while National Women’s Soccer League, now on hiatus from its eleventh season, is easily the most successful attempt at a women’s pro league, it’s still a relatively niche league here. Even the men’s league, Major League Soccer, is considered a third-tier league; indeed, more Americans watch the English Premier League.
Beyond that, we have a wildly different youth sport culture here than just about anywhere else in the world. There just isn’t anything like the academy system here, for good or ill. That the pathway to elite status in most sports are travel leagues available only to those whose parents can afford it and are willing to get on board with the daily grind certainly complicates matters considerably.