We May Be Champions, but There's Still Work to Do
A South American friend of mine is an avid supporter of Real Madrid and his country’s national team. He is super passionate about the game and international competition. At the 2018 World Cup, his eyes were glued to the television, constantly watching games. However, he recently told me that he doesn’t really watch the Women’s World Cup. To him, it’s like watching basketball in the Olympics – one team (USA) dominates everyone else without much competition.
The reason that he doesn’t watch the women’s game is not that he is sexist, misogynistic, or doesn’t support women’s soccer; it’s that ultimately, he wants to be entertained and watch quality soccer, and to him, watching one team (USA) blow away the competition is not exciting.
Whether or not you agree, it sure seems like this has been the story of the Women’s World Cup since its inception. The USA has won 4 of 8 tournaments and has been in the top 3 every single year. The US is certainly a powerhouse in women’s soccer.
Winning with Bad Soccer
Even though the US women are the best and strongest team in the world and are back-to-back World Cup Champions, our country at the highest level is not good at soccer, both men and women included.
The quality of soccer is simply bad. The decision making and the quality of play is not a high quality. As wonderful and as monumental as this recent achievement is for the women (and it really is amazing), we shouldn’t be complacent as a country with our level of soccer on the women’s side.
I WANT TO BE CLEAR: The success of the women’s national team is an astounding feat. Despite the fact that we have an underwhelming soccer culture in this country, the women have won back-to-back World Cups. I want only success for the team and women’s soccer overall. And it is because of this unwavering and deep-rooted support that I must be critical.
My criticism of the quality of play is not an insult to the actual players on the team. It is not their fault that they play a poor brand of soccer. In fact, it is quite impressive that they have won so much despite the poor player development system we have. However, winning so much does not mean that we couldn’t be better, and it certainly does not mean that we should be happy with how we develop players and the game in our country. In fact, since we have won so much, many of us are blind to how poorly we play the game.
Complacency in Development
I hear many people talk about the development of soccer in this country, and when we talk about what we need to do to make it better, many people (some of whom are directly involved in shaping the game on a national scale) say we have it figured out on the women’s side, but we need to find a solution for the men’s side. This is wrong.
If we return to the example of my South American friend watching basketball in the Olympics, the only reason the US blows everyone out is because no one else really plays basketball, and over the years, other countries have not invested any resources into developing the sport. Therefore, our basketball team is the best by default.
In basketball, there is not much purposeful structure when it comes to the national team or how the game and players are developed. Historically, we have been successful just by the simple fact that we are the only one’s really playing it.
However, as basketball has risen in popularity around the world, more and more countries have begun to invest in it. More countries now have professional leagues and are implementing player development pathways. The structure of basketball in these countries looks a lot like soccer does (albeit on a smaller scale). We are also seeing more and more foreign-born players in the NBA (about a quarter of all players). As time goes on, these other countries are becoming more competitive in international competitions and their leagues are becoming better.
And while the level of play in all these countries is improving, we haven’t really done anything to truly develop basketball in the United States. In time, as other countries invest more and more into the development of basketball, we are going to see a paradigm shift where it is quite possible that other countries may surpass the United States’ level.
Relation to Women’s Soccer
Unfortunately, much of the world does not respect or invest in women’s soccer. This has allowed the US, as world-leaders in progressive thought, to really be the first ones to establish legitimate opportunities for girls and women to play soccer at a high level. Just like in basketball, since very few other countries have traditionally invested in women’s soccer, our women have been the best by default.
However, like in basketball, more countries have begun to invest time, money, and resources into women’s soccer over the past several years. If we continue to be complacent with our women’s soccer team, we will inevitably end up at a similar level on the world stage as our men are now.
Objectively Assessing the Level of Play
Something that often happens in youth soccer is that a team signs up for a league that is at a level one or two tiers below what would be competitive for them. Because of this, the team wins all their games and blows away all their opponents. Although this team is winning every game and having success, it doesn’t mean that the players are improving or playing a good brand of soccer. It just means that they are naturally better than their current competition.
If ever this team goes out and plays an opponent from a higher-level league or another area, they will get blown away because there are others who are developing and playing better than them. And one day, when these players move onto the next level (whether it be high school, college, etc.) they will realize that they aren’t actually that good, and that they haven’t been developing to their full potential.
Winning games has given the team and its players a false sense of success and a false sense of their playing abilities. They thought they were playing good soccer and never thought they needed to keep improving because they were winning.
This is the same situation as our women’s national team.
The best players and teams in the world (who happen to be men because it is what every country has invested in) are simply more technically sound and make better decisions. They are more creative and solve problems better and faster. If we assess these qualities within a mid-tier national team on the men’s side, it will likely be a lot better than the US women’s team. Again, this is if we assess skill, creativity, and speed of the mind – not physical ability.
In judging and assessing the quality of play objectively – simply assessing the soccer – our US women simply don’t play at a high quality. It’s clunky, unrefined, and unsophisticated.
Let’s Get to Work
Yes, let’s celebrate the success of our women’s national team. Let’s give them all the credit that they have earned. Let’s also be appreciative that we get to start ahead of the curve because we live in a country that has given so many opportunities to young girls and women to play the game.
But let’s not be complacent. Let’s not be the youth team that thinks they’re better than they actually are. Let’s not be basketball. Let’s improve soccer and the development system in the country – for women and men alike. Let’s continue to be the best in the world for decades to come no matter how much other countries begin to improve. Let’s show the world how good women’s soccer can be.