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The End of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Dominance

The U.S. Women’s National Team suffers by comparison to its old glories. At the previous World Cup, in 2019, it channeled the best of the American character: magnetic self-confidence that verged on arrogance, individualism that flamboyantly flouted archaic norms. In the press, players jawboned about the president of the United States as they waged war against their own employer in the name of equal pay. On the pitch, they were a hegemonic power: adventurous, righteous, justifiably certain of their destiny.

What the world has witnessed in the early stage of this year’s World Cup, where the team has tied Portugal and the Netherlands, is a display of American decline. The squad prevailed in the battle for equal pay, but it now lacks the cohesion that came with its former sense of idealistic mission. This iteration of the U.S. team is desperately searching for a collective identity–not to mention a midfield structure–and is led by a feckless coach who seems overawed by his position and afraid to assert himself in the hinge moments of matches.

But part of America’s soccer diminishment is actually relative. 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 for a long time, the U.S. struggled to leverage this advantage into robust professional infrastructure. Leagues came and went. The pay was miserable, and bully coaches were tolerated. The National Women’s Soccer League, now 11 years old and more firmly rooted than its predecessors, is only belatedly receiving the investment that it deserves.

Many other countries had an innate advantage over this higgledy-piggledy apparatus, even if they were painfully slow to avail themselves of it. In Europe and Latin America, there are men’s soccer clubs with rabid followings, powerful commercial arms, and expertise in nurturing young players from the earliest stages of their careers. But because of their sexism, many didn’t graft women’s teams onto their operations. Barcelona, to take one egregious example, didn’t have a professional women’s side until 2015.

What they have belatedly realized is that their fan bases have an insatiable appetite for soccer–and these fan bases have such tribal devotion to the badge on their jersey that they will extend their fandom to the women’s game. The biggest clubs in the world–the likes of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and Chelsea–made minimal investments in developing female franchises, which have rapidly proved their worth and triggered further investments.

I’ve experienced this as a fan of the club Arsenal, by far the most successful team in North London. As part of a concerted effort, its women’s team is gradually being regarded as equal to the men’s. On the facade of the stadium, a new mural celebrates the Arsenal women who won the European Champions League, alongside legendary male players from the past. When Adidas drops a new jersey, it releases videos featuring stars such as Vivianne Miedema, Leah Williamson, and Beth Mead (all of whom are sadly injured during this World Cup). Recruitment for the men’s and women’s teams are overseen by the same astute executives, who have access to powerful analytic tools. And in the past few seasons, the women have begun playing several matches each year in the 60,000-seat Emirates Stadium. Their games are now broadcast around the world.

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 Bonmat?, 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.

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