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Women's World Cup: USWNT is now behind the rest of women's soccer thanks to a lack of competition and plenty of complacency
This is the first FIFA Women's World Cup that the USWNT has not progressed to the semifinals
The USWNT and its supporters come off as arrogant. As if they invented women's soccer. Yet, women's soccer had been played for years before the USWNT won its first World Cup in 1991.
It was the acceleration of girls’ and women's sports in the United States thanks to Title IX that enabled the USWNT to emerge as the premier national team in women's soccer. With four World Cup wins, it is easy for American soccer fans to assume that the women’s national team is the best in the world.
For years, the Americans were head and shoulders ahead of the rest of the globe, who had to spend the last 30 years catching up. There was always going to be a day of reckoning. A day in which the rest of the world finally caught up.
Well, that day came on Sunday, when Sweden defeated the Americans on penalties 5-4 to progress to the quarterfinals of the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup. Anyone post-defeat claiming penalties to be a lottery is simply clueless about the way sports work. Penalties are not a lottery just as much as shooting a free throw in basketball is not a lottery.
Penalties are not randomly scored and aren’t like flipping a coin, with a result of a goal or no goal. Penalty shootouts are about mental fortitude, something England showed in their 4-2 penalty win over Nigeria in their round of 16 fixture.
The USWNT did not have the mental strength to win a penalty shootout. This is a team of ageing players and youngsters that are unproven in international soccer. Most are unproven at the club soccer level. One of the USWNT's most decorated players, Megan Rapinoe, missed her penalty, adding to the disappointment, as the long-time team member played her final World Cup match. Alex Morgan, a passenger in all four USWNT matches, wasn't even on the pitch, having been removed for Rapinoe previously.
Despite tallying 22 shots against Sweden, the USWNT’s lack of quality in scoring transitioned into the penalty shootout. Struggling to put chances away, the mental pressure took its toll even more. You can tally as many shots as you want in a 120-minute game. But if you don’t have a player to finish the chances, then it doesn’t matter how many shots you rack up.
A lack of planning leads to a lack of goals
The Americans tallied 28 shots against Vietnam, 18 against the Dutch, and 17 against Portugal for a grand total of 85 shots. Having just four goals to show for 85 shots is embarrassing and shows Morgan’s current lack of ability to finish chances.
Morgan was the USWNT’s central striker in Vlatko Andonovski’s 4-3-3 formation. The centre-forward's chief job was to score goals, playing in the No 9 position. Coming away with zero goals from 16 shots, four on target, in four matches is poor for a player of her calibre. She failed to tally a shot on target in the games against Vietnam and the Netherlands.
Let’s not talk about Andonovski’s poor coaching, just as University of Pittsburgh head women’s soccer coach Randy Waldrum led Nigeria to the round of 16 and a near shock of England despite not being paid for seven months. Waldrum has never coached the USWNT. Maybe he should.
This is the first FIFA Women's World Cup that the USWNT has not progressed to the semifinals. Let that sink in. In the wake of Sunday's defeat, the US soccer media and fanbase have shown plenty of naivety and cluelessness about the sport. Pundits have come out to question how the USWNT could be the best team yet not progress. How could the team rack up 22 shots against Sweden and not win? Shots like possession are misleading stats. The stats don’t mean a team dominated a fixture. Nor do the stats mean a team should win without putting the ball into the back of the net.
Believing that the USWNT is still the best team in women's soccer is wrong. Several teams have shown themselves to be strong, better coached, better tactically and technically, and with better player development.
Spain, the Netherlands, England, and Japan have been impressive at the tournament, but they aren't the only ones. The rise of the African nations, Nigeria, South Africa, and Morocco shows that women's soccer development is on the rise around the world. Players don’t have to go to American universities to improve nor do they need to sign with a National Women’s Soccer League team.
USWNT development has fallen behind
The development of women's soccer in Europe, Asia, Oceania, and Africa is partially down to strong domestic leagues. Only one USWNT member (Lindsey Horan) at the 2023 World Cup plays outside of the NWSL. She plays for France’s Lyon
For so long, the US player pool has competed in a closed league, with a lack of pressure to win. There is no promotion and relegation. There are no high-level international competitions like the UEFA Champions League.
Like in the men's game, the best female players are now playing in Europe. The likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, Barcelona, Wolfsburg, and Eintracht Frankfurt are elite club teams in the women's game. England’s Women’s Super League is attracting some of the best players in the world like Sam Kerr and Beth Mead. Alex Putellas, the 2021 and 2022 Ballon d'Or Féminin, plays for Barcelona in Spain. Kerr may be an NWSL alum, but she is tearing up the WSL and is one of the best-paid female soccer players in the world.
The NWSL isn’t attracting the best players. Sure, all but one current USWNT player competes in the league, but who else? Brazil legend Marta plays in the NWSL, but the 37-year-old was used sparingly in the Women’s World Cup, as the Seleção was dumped out of the tournament at the group stage. She is on the same retirement tour playing in the USA as Lionel Messi is.
Morgan may have scored five goals in 11 games for the San Diego Wave in 2023 before the World Cup break, but how many goals would she score for Barcelona? That's assuming she could get into the squad.
The NWSL doesn’t provide the competition needed to progress
Morgan is an easy player to pick on. The 34-year-old has scored 121 goals for the USWNT. Some of those were massive goals but soccer is a game of "what have you done for me lately?"
Twice in her club career, she went abroad, playing for Lyon and Tottenham Hotspur. Despite scoring seven combined goals for the clubs, she only appeared in 12 matches. There is a desire from many American players to play in the United States which is understandable. Players would prefer to play near home. But the competition is higher outside the States.
Players can only develop by playing the best players possible. American sports leagues are long and winding, featuring a playoff tournament at the end for the teams that qualify. American sports are based on making the owners richer by having a large number of matches for fans to attend or watch on television.
The NWSL is now the equivalent of the men's MLS. It is a league that does not inspire competition. Going abroad to play against stronger players and teams is the only way to get better. Americans are always taught they are the best at everything. It is something you learn from an early age in school, just as you are taught to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. It is a devastating moment when you discover you are not the best.
The USWNT scored just four goals in four matches at the Women's World Cup. Three of those goals came against Vietnam. It shouldn't be forgotten that the Yanks never led a game in the final 300-plus minutes of soccer at the tournament.
After winning 3-0 against Vietnam, one of the worst teams in the tournament, the USWNT had to fight from behind to draw 1-1 against the Netherlands. They followed it up by scoring zero goals in back-to-back games versus Portugal and Sweden. The Americans were fortunate to progress against Portugal and should have gone out at the group stage based on their poor performances.
The USWNT has the deepest, or at least one of the deepest, player pools to select from. The number of female players in high schools, colleges and universities, and the NWSL is incredible. Other countries look enviously at the Americans for the number of players available for development and potential selection.
Losing in the semifinals or final wouldn’t have been a shame for the Americans. Losing in the round of 16 shows the national team isn't falling behind. Rather it shows that the USWNT is now behind countries like Spain, Sweden, Japan, and England.
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