This was truly a decade of massive change for the women’s game. Tracing the growth of international women’s soccer from the buildup to the 2011 World Cup to the over a billion viewers who watched in 2019 is nothing short of astounding, particularly given this growth happened under the auspices of a governing body that has long underfunded and neglected women, not to mention various individual federations that have behaved much the same.
And yet, truly generational players have managed to emerge on the global stage, becoming regular fixtures on not just pitches, but awards stages worldwide. We may grumble about Marta winning so many player of the year trophies on the back of her immense name recognition, but you can’t deny she earned that recognition fair and square. Hope Solo has perhaps been written about for her controversies off the field almost as much as her contributions on it, but she defined an era of USWNT dominance. Homare Sawa may be one of the most respected names in the game, seen as the epitome of field vision and technical precision in ball distribution, and a consummate leader of the Nadeshiko. And there are others, players who instantly draw attention on the field, the ones who inspire confidence or fear, depending on who you’re rooting for.
To be eligible for this list, a player must have been internationally active for at least four years, covering a full cycle between major tournaments. These are players who have been critical to their teams’ success on the international stage over a sustained period of time. We are also not taking into account off-the-field actions. Many players have great social and cultural impact, but we are only considering their influence on the field, whether it’s scoring goals, making assists, saving shots, etc. We are also taking into account club play, as long as it was a sustained performance that helped elevate the team and/or the league itself in the consciousness of soccer fans. We’re well aware that these criteria can be interpreted with some wiggle room, but soccer isn’t a sport for robots with spreadsheets, and some of the fun lies in the subjectivity of the discussion.
Here are the candidates in alphabetical order:
There may be no position on the field more polarizing than goalkeeper. One mistake, and you’re Boo Boo the fool for the rest of your life. One moment of brilliance, and you’re a legend. But sometimes you’re a steady force who may not get the same recognition from flashy goals because great goalkeeping often looks like a simple catch that is actually quite difficult to execute as you compress a rapidly-developing field situation into deciding on where to be in a goal that is impossible to cover 100%. Angerer was one of the best at this deceptive simplicity, with enough guts to match her brains for when being smarter than forwards wasn’t enough.
There are people out there half Formiga’s age who couldn’t keep up with her physically. How does she do it? How has she been doing it for so many years? Is there a Brazil WNT without Formiga? And is there women’s soccer without Brazil? In a technical sense, yes, of course the international game would continue (knock on wood) without Brazil. But the identity of the sport, the storylines, the examples of what is possible to do with a ball - these are things profoundly affected by Brazil’s presence, and in turn, by Formiga.
Evocative of the Danish men’s European championship winning team from 1992 (dubbed Danish Dynamite), the women’s team took the 2017 Euros by storm lead by Pernille Harder. Although the Danes lost the final in the Netherlands, Harder set herself apart and announced herself on the world stage to those who did not already know her. A captain, leader, striker, playmaker, defender: Harder was the beating heart of the team, carrying the torch not just for Denmark but all of Scandinavia. From her hat-trick senior debut, she’s been playing since last decade and is still only 27, is still grossly overlooked, and is still a force on the pitch, a world-class star from a sleepy town in Jutland.
Hegerberg boycotting the Norwegian national team is a tragedy for both her and their program, though obviously she deserves to be able to walk away if she’s being treated unfairly. It’s a testament to just how how good she was in the years she did give to them (as well as her current club work) that there are still calls for her to come back to the NT. She’s still at world-beater status, with her preternatural understanding of tight spaces and a smoothly stylish first touch that sometimes makes you feel like you’ve been dunked on.
How can you have soccer this decade (or last decade) without Marta? Answer: you can’t. She was the embodiment of the impossible made possible through her looping, criss-crossing, blurred-to-the-eye feet. On the field she was perfection and she was despair, she was joy and she was fear. No matter where she played, fans on both sides had their opinions of her, their memories of this goal or that cut. She was the one to watch, on whom all hopes or all worries rested. She was, and is, Marta.
When fit, Dzsenifer Marozsán is probably the most dominant soccer player in the world. Marozsán has been at the preeminence of the sport since she first made headlines with the German U20 team in 2012. Since then, she has catapulted any team she is on from being a very good team to the best team around. Whether it was 1. FC Saarbrücken, 1. FFC Frankfurt or her current employers, Olympique Lyonnais, Marozsán has shone and shone brightly. Her clinical passing and a penchant for scoring breath-taking goals cannot be understated, and at 27 years old, Marozsán will continue to thrill us for years to come.
How much of Alex Morgan’s destined-for-greatness narrative was hype and how much was her own frankly astonishing athletic ability may depend on your personal feelings, but what isn’t up for debate is that Morgan is someone who can overwhelmingly dominate in the attack. Her technical savvy sometimes doesn’t get its just due, overshadowed by her pure physical gifts, but as she gets older, it becomes more and more apparent that she was never a one trick baby horse.
At the beginning of the decade, when Megan Rapinoe was what should have been her prime years, she was just a rotation player for the USWNT. She was considered a bit of a set piece specialist, an excellent technician who was lacking in the physical tools needed to start most games. By the end of the decade, 34-year-old Rapinoe was a locked-in starter and named the FIFA Best Women’s Player for 2019. Sure, she worked on her game during that time period, but she didn’t change her playing style much at all. Instead, the USWNT – and women’s soccer as a whole – changed around her. Rapinoe has improved with age, but more importantly, the USWNT is now better suited to her game.
If Renard were near the end of her playing career she would rightly be held up as one of the most dominant defenders in the history of the women’s game. But at only 29 years old, she’s still got some time to further cement her legacy. A one-club woman who came up through Olympique Lyonnais’ academy system, team captain Renard was indelibly shaped by Lyon, and has in turn been instrumental in helping Les Fenottes become such a dominant force in Europe. While the shelf for her international medals looks a bit threadbare at present, Renard more than makes up for it with club accolades, including thirteen (consecutive!) Division 1 Féminine titles and six Women’s Champions League titles.
It was hard not to be drawn to Šašić as a player - she was a magnetic forward with a lovely sense of space and timing who could set up as well as score on her own, with head or feet. She came out of a great era of German players like Angerer and Garefrekes and stood out from the pack right in front of the goal. Honestly, her retirement at age 27 felt like it came far too soon even though she had already given over a decade of her life to the national team.
Sauerbrunn has quietly gone about ensuring the United States stays top of the international game with her steady, thoughtful play. She dragged attention to the position by the sheer - and consistent - quality of her play, but like all excellent center backs, was often marked more by what didn’t happen than what did, making for a lack of flashy highlights.
Japan had an incredible run to start this decade, winning the 2011 World Cup and 2014 Asian Cup while finishing second in both the 2015 World Cup and the 2012 Olympics. We could call Homare Sawa the heart of that stylish, successful Nadeshiko team, but that would sell her short. Sawa was the brain, the captain, and the distillation of that era for Japan: skillful, indefatigable, inventive. For club (3 straight titles with INAC Kobe Leonessa) and country, Sawa set a new standard for central midfielders worldwide.
Seger has a bit of a reputation for her, shall we say, brusque physical encounters, but to only see her physicality is to far undersell her importance to any midfield. Her tireless engine has driven many a team to success, absolutely gobbling up every single crumb of resistance offered to her by the opposition. She’s both enforcer and general, able to patrol through the midfield, arrive late, and begin attacks.
A lot written about Sinc talks about what she’s done in spite of the team around her. It feels unfair, and a little mean, but perhaps only because it contains an element of truth. This is someone who has always outpaced, sometimes literally, everyone around her. And when age inevitable started to tell, she didn’t have to adjust her game, because that wellspring of cunning and vision was always there. It was coaches who had to adjust, realizing they hadn’t lost a powerful piece, but gained a different, equally powerful one.
After the USWNT lost 4-0 to Brazil in the semifinals of the 2007 World Cup, Hope Solo infamously stated that she would have made the saves to keep her team in the match. She was widely criticized for being arrogant and disrespectful to her teammates, but the next eight years of her career also suggested that she might have been right. Solo was the best shot-stopper of her generation, and retired with 102 shutouts in a USWNT shirt, as well as an astonishing run of 55 games unbeaten. Even as women’s soccer progresses rapidly, no one else appears to have matched the quick reactions Solo had at her peak.
It’s difficult for Abby Wambach to influence other people’s games, since doing so would require a level of God-given physical ability reserved for a fraction of a percent of humans. But Wambach did so much more than rely on her 5’11” frame, strength and leaping ability. She maximized her talent, becoming as good of a playmaker as she was a goal-scorer in her late career. Her passing and ability to create space for teammates was more important than her aerial prowess as her career wound down. Wambach’s evolution also mirrored American soccer’s; the next USWNT player with her talents will be asked to develop a more complete skillset in her early 20s, instead of in her 30s.