The sad truth about the eternal dominance of U.S. women's soccer
The U.S. team is hammering its rivals. That's actually a bad sign for the sport.
Watching the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team sweep the Women's World Cup is almost intoxicating. With a 67 percent chance of beating England in the semifinal this afternoon, the team is the heavy favorite to win what would be its fourth title in eight World Cup tournaments next weekend — two more than Germany, the next most-successful club. They've even made it look easy; despite benching their stars, the United States has plowed forward practically untouched. When defender Ali Krieger half-jokingly concluded "we have the best team and the second-best team in the world," she was probably correct.
But as invigorating as it's been to root for a U.S. women's team on a national stage, the USWNT's domination isn't a sign of health for the sport. Instead, it's a sign that women's soccer still has so far to go.
Competitive balance is admittedly not a surefire barometer of a sports league's well-being (just look at the NBA). That being said, the lopsided competition at this year's World Cup looks a lot like the Women's Baseball World Cup in Viera, Florida last year. Only, it wasn't the U.S. team that dominated that tournament; it was Japan's. The gold medal game saw Japan beat Chinese Taipei 6-0, after having beat the U.S. 3-0 in the super round. Japan's superiority can be directly traced to the infrastructure the nation has in place to support women's baseball, from the nurturing of a professional league to the media attention afforded to the women in the sport.
Women's soccer in the U.S. is what women's baseball is in Japan. While women's baseball flounders in the U.S. because of a Title IX loophole — softball has been treated as interchangeable with baseball despite the two being entirely different sports — the landmark 1972 legislation can be thanked in part for our soccer dominance. Between the signing of Title IX and the first Women's World Cup in 1991, there was a 17,000 percent increase in the number of American high school women soccer players, CNN reports. "If a country set out to build an international powerhouse from scratch [today], the process would look a lot like what has happened in the U.S. in the past 47 years," adds FiveThirtyEight. "Require equal scholarship funding for male and female college athletes; furnish rosters with the fruits of a nationwide travel soccer system; and pump money into the national team for the best players to train together and test themselves against the most skilled opponents in the world."
America's long history of supporting women in soccer is in contrast to other countries, which outright banned women from playing for decades. Brazil, England, and Germany may be known today as soccer powerhouses, that is a designation left to their men's teams. Brazil has the winningest men's soccer team but banned women from playing between 1941 and 1979; England restricted women's soccer between 1921 and 1971; and in Germany, a ban lasted from 1955 and 1970. What's more, that intolerance has a ripple effect: While the first FIFA World Cup for men was held in 1930, international women's soccer tournaments are still very new. Only recently have national women's teams had the opportunity to test themselves against other elite clubs around the world.
Europe is actively working to catch up with the U.S. by starting to support their women's teams with some of the same enthusiasm they offer freely to the their robust men's clubs. "The total women's [soccer] budget across the continent has more than doubled from 50.4 million euros in 2012 to 111.7 million euros in 2017," writes FiveThirtyEight, adding that a recent match between the Atletico Madrid and FC Barcelona's women's teams drew a crowd of 60,739, more than any club crowd yet in the U.S. Sadly, other continents are not seeing the same support for their national teams; several South American women's national clubs are unpaid, and African clubs face similar setbacks. Likewise, Thailand, which was crushed 13-0 by the U.S., is almost single-handedly supported by an insurance company CEO; when they're not training or playing, the teammates work as sales representatives.
Thankfully, Americans do largely care about the U.S. women's team. Watching the tournament, it's hard to miss how empty the stadiums are during the undercard matches. In contrast, almost 140,000 World Cup tickets were sold to fans from the United States, The New York Times writes, "second only to those from [the host] France and more than those from all 22 other nations combined. Every match involving the Americans was sold out before the tournament began." Historically, this attention toward the U.S. women has held true; the women's team brought in some $20 million more in revenue than the U.S. men's team in 2015, ESPN reports.
Still, the U.S. women's team faces infuriating and widely-publicized hurdles, despite being the number one team in the world. While the USWNT scored more goals in their first game this tournament than the U.S. men's national soccer team scored in every World Cup since 2006 combined, the women athletes have only been paid about a quarter of what the men make. The team is treated as a sort of novelty, from their "afterthought" inclusion in the FIFA 19 video game to the way media coverage of the Women's World Cup largely focuses on the gender of the athletes over their accomplishments, as if reporters are discovering for the first time that women can play soccer.
I get chills watching the U.S. women. But as exciting as it is to watch an American women's sports dynasty in the making, and as deserved and earned as each of the USWNT victories has been, I hope we're no longer the only dominant team in the tournament by the time 2023 rolls around. We need to root for women's soccer as a whole.