I have Pajiba to thank for my love of Women’s Soccer.
Years ago, I was covering the Men’s World Cup in detail and someone made a comment on one of the posts that they hoped I would cover the upcoming Women’s World Cup with as much vigor. Of course! I replied and thought, Shit! I’d better bone up on the Women’s game. At that point I just wasn’t as familiar with the players as I was with the men.
I immediately started watching games and following the players and I basically fell in love with the women’s game. By the time the Women’s World Cup arrived in 2019 I was well versed on all the teams and the players, so it was an added bonus that year when the US Women’s National Team won the World Cup.
I haven’t missed a USWNT game since. I’ve seen them in person twice, which was such a thrill. I also watch the NWSL — the professional women’s league in the US as well as the WSL — the Women’s Super league in England, the Olympics, the Challenge, CONCACAF, and She Believes Cups, as well as the Euros and any international friendlies they televise, no matter the teams. The 2022 women’s Euros was particularly amazing and I watched every match. So, I’m invested in the sport on a broad level.
In the time I’ve been a fan, women’s soccer has absolutely exploded. I’ve seen programs rise and others fall. I’ve watched as players worldwide have demanded better pay and better conditions and more protections from abusive organizations and coaches and finally things are starting to take shape. But it’s a process and the misogyny runs deep.
I remember, for example, when American superstar Alex Morgan signed on to play with English club Tottenham Hotspurs and she was shocked to see their women’s practice facility, especially when the men’s fields were state of the art and available. Just sitting there unused while the men were doing other things. Morgan spoke to management, the crux of which was, I assume, you’d better let the women’s team use those fancy pitches or I’m gonna let my 9 million Twitter followers know about it et voila! Management had a change of heart. If we’re being generous, we can call it a simple oversight, but it takes stars the level of Alex Morgan to even initiate that type of change.
Case in point: there isn’t a player in the world better than Spain’s Alexia Putellas. She’s a phenom and still on her way up. Even so, her status is not enough for her to get the changes she wants. When fifteen of her fellow Spanish players led by Captain Irene Paredes demanded changes under coach Jorge Vilda concerning his impact on “their emotional state and their health,” not only did the Spanish Soccer Federation back Vilda, but it said that the players would be banned from playing for Spain until they apologized. Though Putellas wasn’t one of the fifteen who sent letters, she’s been very overt in her support for her teammates.
(‘Contigo’ translates to ‘with you’)
I remember during the last Women’s World Cup the narrative was “Can the United States beat France?” That was the big bad on the horizon, the Wendie Renard-led French team. But in actuality, the most difficult opponent was a trap game in the semifinals versus Spain where the US only managed to sneak by because of a lone penalty shot.
Spain is a program on the rise, and was almost too much for the English side in this year’s Euros before a halftime adjustment let England back into the match and probably cost Spain the victory. Both teams looked outstanding. They were smart and strong and dangerous at every level.
Watching the Euros, I couldn’t help but compare the quality of play to the quality of the USWNT and wonder if I was somehow making an error converting metric to English Standard by thinking “sure, they’re good, but the US is in another stratosphere, right?”
Since the departure of the USWNT’s winningest coach Jill Ellis in 2019 (a truly polarizing figure who has become the focal point of both complaints and idolatry) and the hiring of her replacement Vlatko Andonovski, it has looked — to my eye, at least — that the team was not improving. I was very pro-Andonovski when he was hired, and all I heard at the time was that he was the ‘logical choice’ to succeed Ellis, but that excitement has waned and I’m not sure he has the answers for this team. Yes, they’re in one of their transition periods of retiring older players and welcoming in new young talent, but the team hasn’t seemed to develop an identity of their own. It just feels like an all-star team in any sport where the talent of the individual players is obvious but no unifying architecture seems to bind them to each other. As for the style of play, which is predicated on Andonofski’s high-intensity full-press tactics, it ultimately has looked … messy.
Add to that the unfortunate situation around the difficulty in scheduling opponents for friendlies (games that don’t count towards any larger competition or qualifier) and you would often end up with the #1 ranked US team playing countries like Haiti and Dominican Republic and Uzbekistan. Basically, teams that have nowhere near the development and training programs the USWNT have. The US would blow these teams out with baseball scores and everyone would cheer except for the die-hard fans of the sport who knew that while we were scrimmaging lesser programs, teams like Sweden and Germany and the Netherlands were playing each other, tempering steel with steel.
The first sign of real trouble was in the leadup to the Olympics when we played two friendlies against Canada in 2017. Canada had a new coach as well, former player Bev Priestman and I’ll never forget how fired up she had her players during those friendlies. I told my daughter “She has them believing they can actually win” which at one point was a laughable suggestion. Even former Canadian women’s national team players joke that there has never been a true ‘rivalry’ between the US and Canada in women’s soccer because for it to be a rivalry both teams have to win sometimes. The USA tied the first match 1-1 and then beat Canada 3-1 but you could see that the gap was closing and the difference that a truly inspired coach can make.
As the Olympics approached, the US team still refused to gel. There had been a predictable ritual in past years where the USWNT would work out some kinks in friendlies but as tournaments approached you would see the starters coalesce into something that looked tight and intimidating. That didn’t happen before the last Olympics. Something Andonovski was doing wasn’t working. The team didn’t look right, but most of us gave him the benefit of the doubt. I know I was fired up about his excitement for the game, which was a departure from the more stoic Ellis. Still, the team felt messy and some fans were worried.
It’s not time to panic, assured U.S. Soccer, the organization in charge of both the men’s and women’s national teams.
In the opening qualifiers, Sweden crushed the USWNT 3-0.
That was a wake up call for many of us. It was 3-0 but it could have been worse. Sweden was so much faster than the US. They were hungrier and looked like the superior side. It was borderline predatory, like they knew the US was hobbled and could smell blood in the water. Luckily, the US won enough in their Olympic qualifying bracket to advance in Japan, only to eventually fall to Bev Priestman and the Canadian Team on their way to an Olympic Gold Medal over Sweden.
It’s not time to panic, assured U.S. Soccer.
But the USWNT looked like a mess. After the Olympics, there were departures from veteran players who would then do some questionable interviews and cast aspersions on their former teammates. Several key players got injured, and others took time off to have children. In one case, superstar forward Christen Press tore her ACL in a game for the expansion Angel City FC of the NWSL and Andonovski commented that she wouldn’t have been invited back to USWNT camp anyway. That got a pretty big reaction from fans. Not only is Press a clutch player, but a universally beloved veteran presence on the team. It felt fishy, but a lot of things had changed with the team.
My heart is broken: I’ve torn my acl. Readily accepting all love, prayers, virtual hugs, dog pics, and smudging ceremonies. Love you all xx— Christen Press (@ChristenPress) June 13, 2022
During the pandemic and in its immediate aftermath, fans like me who had adored every player now couldn’t help but notice the ones who stood for the anthem while their teammates kneeled. It’s not a 1:1 comparison but it did feel like seeing your neighbor’s Trump sign on their lawn. Even when the sign eventually comes down, you remember which houses had it. The USWNT players were like that and the team felt as fractured as the fan base had become.
Horan is not our best. ⚽ pic.twitter.com/j5scd1FyGp— Ginger ⭐⭐ (@pickledginger67) October 13, 2022
When the team finally got an overdue influx of young players, the new breed of player didn’t seem to have the same reverence for the sport that their predecessors had or the respect for the women who had come before them. For example, Trinity Rodman, the daughter of former NBA player Dennis Rodman, is a truly gifted soccer player, and at age nineteen she was given the highest-paying contract in NWSL history. For the record: she deserves every penny, but at the start of her time being called up to training for the USWNT, it seemed that she didn’t value the veterans on the team and she posted some side-eye inducing tweets (which she has since deleted).
After the Olympics the new, younger team cut their teeth on some truly uninspiring competition. Paraguay sent what seemed like a high school team to get crushed in two friendlies 8-0 and 9-0. Vlatko Andonovski supporters and U.S. Soccer sounded the ‘all is well’ but it was the same old thing. It felt like the magic was gone. The US played Korea to a draw and then beat them in the second game. They beat Australia and then tied them in a second friendly. It was all very ho-hum and often felt more like brute force than intelligent design. We just have better players. But that only goes so far against elite sides.
In the 2022 CONCACAF championship, the US went undefeated, including defeating Canada 1-0 in the final but I can’t tell you much about any of it except to say that there were times when teams that shouldn’t have felt like they were in it felt like they were in it. Costa Rica and Haiti, in particular. The US has been the big dog on the block in this region for so long but as more Central and South American countries develop players, get them onto American college teams, and then into professional leagues, you can see the gap closing.
Some fans sounded the alarm again. Something felt off. Yes, we snuck by Mexico 1-0 but this team still had no identity. They weren’t playing with joy they used to. No one was smiling. It looked like a job to them, and kind of a shitty job at that.
It’s not time to panic, assured U.S. Soccer.
Then we watched the 2022 Women’s Euros. What a tournament! It was like women’s soccer had finally arrived. Wembley Stadium had sold out the tickets for the final six months ahead of time in 24 hours. That’s 90,000+ seats and the matches were unbelievable. In the end, host England’s Lionesses were able to edge past perennial contender Germany 2-1 on July 31st. I know I was on a high for days. It was exceptional football.
In September, with the memory of all the great teams still fresh in our minds, we were treated to two friendlies against Nigeria which the USWNT won 4-0 and 2-1.
See? No problem! Said U.S. Soccer.
But that’s where I was trying hard to equate what I was seeing on European pitches with the product that the Americans were churning out. I had just watched all of the European teams play and most of them looked more cohesive than the Americans. Were my eyes deceiving me? Was it my imagination that sides like England and Spain had not only closed the gap between them and the world’s #1 ranked team, but that the US might have their hands full with programs of that caliber?
As we waited for the much-anticipated friendlies with England and Spain, the Sally Yates report dropped, which outlined patterns of systemic abuse and misconduct in the NWSL. It was a huge bombshell and long overdue. In a show of unity, the English and American teams held a banner before their sold-out friendly at Wembley to support their fellow players, many of whom had been blackballed or ignored for speaking out and reporting abuse through the proper channels.
One of those players who had reported abuse more than once was Christen Press. So you have to wonder how far the connections go and who was behind the decision to put her on the shelf at the prime of her career. The whole thing feels incestuous and I hope we get more investigative reporting to shine some light on it because Christen Press is a national treasure and someone or someones did her dirty.
Nevertheless, great football cures all ills and the US was finally set to play the European Champions.
The US lost, 2-1.
Some fans will say that we had a beautiful goal called back in the first half based on an iffy VAR decision (VAR is a virtual replay system) but the evidence clearly shows Trinity Rodman was offsides. The worst part of having that goal reversed was that it felt like the first time we saw some of that irreplaceable on-field magic between the old guard and the new, in this case it was a gorgeous no-look touch pass from legend Megan Rapinoe to budding international sniper Rodman.
What could have been 😭— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) October 7, 2022
This Trinity Rodman goal was disallowed by VAR pic.twitter.com/JemzMWDCQD
Even so, the US had nearly sixty minutes to try to draw even with the Lionesses and they couldn’t do it. Andonovski’s substitutions felt like a child throwing pickles at a wall.
Ummmmmm… Fans like me said.
It’s not time to panic, assured U.S. Soccer. It’s just one game!
uswnt defense tonight pic.twitter.com/KtOa0f02wY— dak o’lantern 🎃2 (@remcatley) October 11, 2022
But the realization was that our eyes had not, in fact, deceived us. The English side could legitimately keep up with us. Yes, both teams were missing key players due to injury, but the eyeball test made it clear: The Lionesses have caught up to us.
It’s not, however, the skill of the players. This is not a player issue. The talent pool for US Soccer is vast, so much so that American players in the Under-17 system often have to explore tangential familial relations with other countries to escape the logjam of limited roster spots on the most coveted team in the women’s football world. The current young players on the US squad are so talented it’s jaw-dropping, but they don’t have that veteran experience yet. Megan Rapinoe explained that in years past, they just knew they were going to win. They just knew it and they knew how to make it happen. This team is not that.
But it’s okay because the friendly against Spain would be a get-right game for the US, if only because Spain was missing 15 of their best players and superstar Alexia Putellas is still rehabbing from an ACL tear of her own. It would be like playing Spain’s B team. No problemo!
What a TOUCH 😤— espnW (@espnW) October 11, 2022
Spain makes it 2-0 over USWNT! pic.twitter.com/qEq8IxpRsv
Spain defeated the US, 2-0.
Without 15 of their top players.
Now, many of us are wondering what the plan is. There are the people like me who say it doesn’t appear to be working and it hasn’t been working for a while. Other people think these back-to-back losses might just be the wake-up call the players need.
A daunting statistic is that the last time the U.S. women lost two games in a row with the opponent scoring multiple goals was in 2001. That seems noteworthy, but I’m sure US Soccer would just say that’s a cherry-picked stat.
But perhaps none of this is any concern and alarmists like me have it wrong. Maybe all of this is just the natural progression of broadening the talent pool, which began when other developed nations started to finally pour support into their women’s programs. That’s objectively a great thing for women and a great thing for society at large. Perhaps it’s as basic as the level of unprecedented dominance the US Women have had over the last two decades is simply unsustainable and overdue for a regression to the mean.
Honestly, I’m rooting for the sport to succeed more than just the US team. Admiring players from the USWNT was just a gateway drug to rooting for talent all over the world. But by and large the US still has the best players on the planet, and they should be able to compete at a higher level than they have been.
It’s also true that the USWNT is missing starters. Alex Morgan for one and Lyon star Caterina Macario for another as well as midfield stalwart Sam Mewis and sweet-footed wing Tobin Heath. All are injured. It’s true that, in a predicament that somehow seems tied to peak capitalism, we have an overabundance of 9’s (attacking center forwards/strikers) and can’t seem to find a single effective 6 (two-way center midfielder/defensive tablesetter) since Julie Ertz got injured and then became a mom. Because of that, there has been legitimate criticism that it’s time for the US to move away from the 4-3-3 formation and play around with a 4-2-3-1 or a 3-5-2. Either would comprise a massive overhaul for the team and would require time to get it right.
These stats were pulled from a Julie Foudy ESPN article, and while I know some people take issue with Foudy, these particular bullet points are tough to swallow.
But there is hope on the horizon. Crystal Dunn is back from having a baby and that’s a huge relief. 22-year-old Naomi Girma is a force on defense and should anchor the back line for years to come. The younger players who seemed so brash and impetuous have learned to appreciate the veterans and have completely changed their tune in that regard. Some of the players who would post crazy antivaxer shit or things that felt homophobic-adjacent have toned it down. That’s a sign that they have an interest in belonging to whatever this team is becoming.
What is it becoming? That we’ll have to see. The USWNT will play two New Jersey-based friendlies next month against Germany on November 10th and 13th. Die Nationalelf have a young wunderkind of their own named Lena Oberdorff who is 20 years old and plays like a Sherman tank. They also have a cadre of wily veterans like Alexandra Popp and Lina Magull and Sara Däbritz and somehow they’ve managed to seamlessly integrate the vets with the young players. Tickets are still available right next to the German bench … for the low low price of holy shit! $621 each?
Woooooo weeeee, the women’s game is booming, y’all!
Maybe, when all is said and done, this era of the USWNT will be a precursor to their next great international run. Maybe Vlatko will be vindicated and we’ll admit he was right the whole time and our impatience got the better of us. However it all plays out, let’s hope the USWNT gets the wake up call that it needs. The World Cup is less than a year away.
(Also, please make Alexi Lalas go away. I can’t even with that guy.)