Why have our women dominated internationally and might that change soon?

Our women’s national team has an impressive record. According to this Wikipedia page, the U.S. WNT has three World Cup titles, four Olympic gold medals, seven CONCACAF Gold Cup wins, and ten Algarve Cups.

The WNT has been ranked either 1st or 2nd in the world these last 20+ years. Click here for more information on rankings over the years.

So why are our women so dominant given the relatively limited soccer culture in our country and the lack of international competitiveness of our men? The relative difference between our women and men is enormous.

I believe there are two key reasons – both are cultural. By way of background, I grew up in Germany during the 70s and 80s, and played and watched soccer in Europe during the 80s and 90s.

First, the role of women in society started to change here much sooner than in other countries. More so than in any other country girls and women were encouraged to grow up confident and equal to men, including becoming athletes.

Yes, we still have some way to go before there’s true equality, but for all practical intents and purposes from a soccer perspective the opportunities for girls and women opened up much sooner here than in other countries.

This process started in the 70s and accelerated in the 80s and 90s. Other countries, including those in Western Europe, changed too, of course, but typically trailed the U.S. by a decade or two, depending on the specific country. And some countries such as Mexico are arguably further behind still.

If your pool of potential players already has a big fundamental cultural mindset advantage then it’s going to be easier to turn them into world-class athletes. The ‘raw material’ here was so much more suitable to competing in sports.

Second, our women were able to flourish precisely because we never had a strong soccer culture. Soccer culture outside the U.S. is very ‘macho’. You would never see girls or women play the game – ever. Not even a pick-up game in a neighborhood park or on the school yard during breaks.

It was and still is a man’s sport in most of the rest of the world and especially in soccer-mad countries. This massively discouraged girls to play. Think ‘American Football culture’ when you reflect on ‘soccer culture’ outside our country.

These two reasons provided the foundation to which we added relatively ample financial resources, a large population, and broadly available quality facilities.

And the college system provided a good development environment for our girls to mature into competitive women. The various pro-leagues over the years also helped post-college.

In a nutshell, our girls were free to play and learn the beautiful game much sooner than in other parts of the world. They were more athletic, more confident, had more experience playing from a young age, and there are many of them in our relatively large country.

So far so good. So very good, actually.

However, our dominance might come to an end sometime in next five to ten years unless we re-think player development and selection for our girls.

In my view, our women are playing an athletic style of play with too little technical skills and creativity. We’ve dominated the world this way because, frankly, the competition was so weak physically and mentally.

Here’s an excellent article on this very topic, published a couple of weeks ago: “As a women’s soccer nation, we have a skill problem.”

It worked well and fitted nicely with our American focus on speed and power. We also didn’t have to match the coaching quality and understanding of the game that soccer-mad countries like Germany and Spain have because those countries did not apply any of that know-how to their women. So our coaching here was good enough.

But this is now changing.

The national soccer federations in Europe recently made developing women’s soccer a priority. This started about five to ten years ago in Germany, France, and Japan. Latin American countries such as Brazil are taking this seriously now too. England also recently started to develop a competitive women’s soccer program.

And what sets these countries apart from us is more emphasis on the technical and creative aspects of the game. I haven’t done a detailed analysis of this nor can I point to any hard evidence to support my claim, but it is apparent to me when I watch international games.

I also see a strong bias toward athleticism and speed watching girls teams play in leagues and various tournaments, including the top ECNL teams.

The smaller, slower, technically superior ten, eleven, or twelve year old player isn’t valued as highly as they should if longer-term player development is the goal. The perfect player has both athleticism and excellent technical skills plus lots of creativity, of course, but that is rare.

So if we don’t start to focus much more on technical skills and creativity then we might sometime soon lose most games against up and coming women’s national teams such as France.

And these countries do have a tremendous depth of understanding of the game that we don’t (yet) have here in our country. Transfer all that to the women’s side of the sport and you should end up with very competitive teams.

If we don’t change will we end up in a similar situation that our men’s team is in. Athletic and solid, but no creativity and understanding of the game at the deepest level.

It seems like USSF leadership recognizes this too and it’s the main reason for launching the Girls’ Development Academy to replace ECNL, without collaborating with ECNL. This article summarizes is nicely. I’m quoting a key passage:

“The aim is to standardize coaching and development in order to push the best players up through a system that can feed the national team with highly-skilled players.

What U.S. Soccer hopes to mitigate are the uncoordinated ways in which the best American youth soccer players are coached. There’s too much screaming on the sidelines and too much emphasis is placed on winning while development of individual talent of the best players is secondary. This move is overdue.

Five years ago, Heinrichs and Ellis said they “flipped the model upside down” about what kinds of players they wanted to see come through to the senior women’s team. Instead of merely seeking out the strongest, biggest, fastest and most athletic players, the new emphasis was on tactical and technical ability. The new academy will standardize practices to make sure the best young players get consistent coaching and training.”

Let’s see where things stand in five to ten years!

Lifelong player and student of the beautiful game in Germany, England, and USA. Volunteer futsal coach and USSF referee.

4 thoughts on “Why have our women dominated internationally and might that change soon?

  1. I believe there is still hope. I was pleasantly surprised during the WC when Ellis went with Klingenberg who is a dwarf-like 5′-2″ but has skills, intelligence and vision. I love her on that left side along with Rapinoe (my favorite player), who I think is the most intelligent player on the pitch. So we have smart ladies out there–the key for the Women’s side is to now push down this requirement though the U teams. Would be great if NCAA enforced FIFA LOTG, and college coaches created more demand for intelligent players rather than adequate technicians. BTW, Klingenberg’s bio on US Soccer should be proof you don’t have to be a physically dominant person to play at the highest levels: http://www.ussoccer.com/players/2014/03/15/02/35/meghan-klingenberg#tab-1
    Good blog, reading through it now.

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  2. Interesting thoughts. I grew up in the UK and “lived” all over the world. In other words i’ve seen many different cultures.

    I think for you point #1, on women not being as culturally free, emancipated, whatever, you are correct for a few European countries and dead wrong for others. There are numerous European countries where women have been free to stay at home or work as they see fit, for far longer than the US. That doesnt mean they make it to C-level positions, but in terms of being on an equal footing, i think many European countries are still ahead of the US.

    The bigger issue is that soccer was just culturally, as you say, a guys sport. I don’t recall a single girl playing soccer when i was growing up int he UK. Netball, rounders etc were the sports they did.

    I also wonder if the US college-based model has helped the US women vs the rest of the world. Title IX drove a lot of additional programs with a lot of additional money – something the rest of the world didnt get.

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    • Let’s agree to disagree on point #1, Andrew. In my experience, girls/women were encouraged sooner than in most European countries to emancipate, pursue careers, and become athletes. The large European countries such as Germany, Italy, Spain, and France had (and still have in some parts) more traditional cultures for longer when it came to the role of girls/women in society, at least when compared to our West and East Coast populations. Many European societies are arguably more advanced on other measures, but that’s a whole different topic and not soccer related.

      I do agree that the UK more closely followed the US experience, probably because of close cultural ties with the U.S. But even there the typical British girl wasn’t as strongly encouraged to grow up as confident and to pursue an athletic career as, say, a girl growing up in California, New York, or Chicago. I’m basing this just on my own experiences and observations having lived, studied, and worked in the UK for many years before coming to the U.S. So I don’t have hard data to point to – it’s subjective, of course, and you might well feel strongly based on your own experiences that the typical British girl indeed had the same opportunities in the 80s and 90s as here in the U.S.

      Some smaller countries such as The Netherlands and Sweden were further along than the larger European countries, probably more closely mirroring or even being ahead of the U.S., but the macho soccer culture and very small population size prevented them from seriously challenging our WNT.

      So in a nutshell, in my view, 75% of the female population in Europe didn’t have, relatively speaking, the same opportunities and societal support in the 70s, 80s, and 90s that 75% of our female population had here. I sometimes refer to it as the ‘first-to-emancipate dividend’, but that dividend is much less valuable today, of course. In fact, one could argue that this dividend has probably been exhausted as of five to ten years ago. This makes point #2 the main cultural brake in Europe today – the macho soccer culture discouraging girls from playing the game. So the girls go into handball or volleyball instead, for example.

      So with the emancipation dividend now exhausted and European soccer powerhouses now actively investing in their girls we might have reached a tipping point. This most recent World Cup win might turn out to be the last of the relatively easy wins unless we change player development and selection for our girls.

      I do agree that the college model here, including Title IX, helped also. It provided additional resources and a ongoing development path for girls. Please note a couple of sentences in the post above: “These two reasons provided the foundation to which we added relatively ample financial resources, a large population, and broadly available quality facilities. And the college system provided a good development environment for our girls to mature into competitive women.”

      Anyway, always appreciate your thoughts, Andrew. This topic probably needs a PhD thesis written on it!

      Like

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