I don’t know whether I’ll be able to catch this weekend’s final of the Women’s World Cup live. I’ll try, but I also know I’ll be working.
The United States’ matchup against the Netherlands should be a good one. The U.S. rolled through the group stages, but has taken each of the knockout games so far by identical 2-1 scores. The match against host France was one people were calling a de-facto final.
England probably disagrees. They pushed the U.S. as hard as any team has, and there was a bit of luck involved in the outcome. An offside here, a foul there, and the result could have been very different.
What we’ve seen since the opening match, a 13-0 drubbing of Thailand, is a series of teams that play the United States tougher and are clearly closing in on what has long been the top women’s team in the world. On the balance, that’s a good thing.
Sure, I want to see the U.S. hoist the trophy. They’re going for consecutive titles here, a fourth star to add to the team’s crest. But the fact the rest of the world is catching up says a great deal about the development of the game over the past couple decades.
The U.S. doesn’t have the same approach to development in soccer that much of the world has, especially Europe. Collegiate soccer plays an outsized role in player development here. Most European teams develop through the club system, and women’s leagues are getting better.
The result is a more competitive field, one in which European teams are clearly closing in on the U.S. The level of play is better. The skills on display are sharper. This is all good for the game.
That’s why I wonder about proposals to expand the Women’s World Cup. Yes, the top teams are stronger and the average level of play is higher than it was a generation ago. But, as we saw in the opening round, there are still teams that make the cup that probably don’t belong in that top rank just yet. Rolling out additional national teams to act as cannon fodder can backfire.
What I’d like to see FIFA try is something along the lines it did with the United States hosting the World Cup back in 1994. That honor came with strings attached, and the biggest was development of a top-level league. The World Cup led directly to Major League Soccer, and attendance today is stronger than a couple other major sports leagues in the country.
While linking expansion to new women’s leagues might be a step too far in many countries, linking expansion of the tournament to increased efforts to develop women’s soccer might not be. That can involve a range of approaches, from the potential creation of leagues to development efforts aimed at getting girls to play the game at a young age in a recreational setting.
The latter option will pay off in the long run. The only way to develop skill is to practice, to work at it for an extended time. For elite athletes, that’s measured in years. The only way to have any reasonable chance of having significant number of top-tier players is for them to begin playing as children.
For those who love soccer, watching the game develop in the U.S. over the past 15-20 years has been amazing. I’d love to see other countries have the same opportunities.