The Women’s World Cup has seen 16 teams leave the competition and has eight teams left battling it out for the title of world champions. With seven of those eight teams all being European, the only non-UEFA team left in France is the USWNT. With investment improving in the women’s game, the seven teams currently from UEFA show that if more teams or owners stopped being to passive in their support of their female players, Europe could be the stronghold of the women’s game for years to come.
The USWNT are at a crossroads at the moment. With their fight for equal pay, the players hope that they and future generations will not lag behind their European counterparts due to a lack of real investment. The USWNT also being deserving of the same amount of allocated funds as the USMNT is a given at this point and does not need repeating.
The USWNT have a fight on their hands to remain at the top of the pile
Many have said this over the last five to seven years but it has become even more evident at this World Cup. The world is catching up to the USA (if it hasn’t already). Spain showed that when they pushed the USWNT all the way to the final whistle in their Round of 16 match up and while other confederations are lagging behind at the moment, UEFA is quickly gaining momentum and is looking to dethrone the USA’s No. 1 status.
The U.S. have always had the depth to compete with every team in the world, no matter what decade they have played in due to the sheer numbers of women and young girls who play the sport in the United States of America. That, and better funding, has always given the USWNT a leg up on the competition but this World Cup has shown that many teams are just another step in development away from switching dominance of the women’s game from the U.S. to Europe.
Where the USA are starting fall behind compared to their European counterparts is at the domestic level. Right now, the National Women’s Soccer League is one of the most competitive leagues in the world but the pay structure of even the very best teams in the NWSL is behind that of the big European teams. The NWSL operates under a salary cap which is enforced to prevent the teams with more money from completely taking over the league but what the top earners in the league earn (apart from the USWNT players) is not comparable to what their European counterparts earn. The highest earning player in the NWSL earns $46,200 per season according to the new NWSL regulations while someone like Wendie Renard earns roughly $32,000 a month at Olympique Lyonnais for what is essentially an eight month season. In short, Renard will make almost eight times as much as the highest paid NWSL player in a season.
Interesting reading in L’Équipe today pic.twitter.com/63a68gziwV— Sophie Lawson (@lawson_sv) June 21, 2019
The salary cap is a smart idea if the NWSL wants to continue with the idea of parity but it does limit the number of talented players that will stay on in the league due to the lack of funds. Most of the players in the league take on second job so despite being a professional league, a lot of the NWSL players are semi-professional at the moment which can and probably will hinder progression if more is not invested into the league. That type of investment also falls into the hands of U.S. Soccer as they are also in charge with running the NWSL. So far, their involvement in the league has been very limited which is surprising given how much the federation helped Major League Soccer in its infancy. More can be done by both the federation and the league to make itself a viable long-term career for players but while they dally in pushing for the necessary changes, the development of the women’s game as a whole is beginning to suffer for it.
Can the USWNT counter this impending change? Absolutely. They still remain the better federation-supported team in the world despite U.S. Soccer not supporting the women’s team as fully as they should (as shown by the recent lawsuits for equal pay). In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the USWNT win this World Cup despite the emergence of teams like Italy and the resurgence of previously dominant teams like Norway. However, this World Cup should serve as a clear warning to those in charge of development and funding for the USWNT and the NWSL. Changes need to happen, and quickly, or the USWNT will be playing catch-up to Europe in the near future.
European powerhouses dominate but newcomers are emerging
Apart from Italy, Norway and the Netherlands, most of the teams in the quarter finals are European nations that have always had support from their federations, to varying degrees. Those powerhouses, England, France, Germany and Sweden, also have had domestic leagues for their players for a long time and apart from Sweden, those leagues have started to see more investment come into the game through men’s teams creating and supporting women’s teams. The leagues are not perfect but they are beginning to show signs of growth that we have not seen in the domestic leagues in the U.S. for quite some time.
Take Italy for example. Usually not considered one of the powerhouse teams but they now find themselves in the quarter finals of the Women’s World Cup.
The last time Italy made the quarter finals of the World Cup was in 1991. The last time the Italians were even involved in the World Cup was in 1999. That was 20 years ago! A domestic league, the Calcio Femminile Serie A has always been around but players had to accept amateur status in order to be able to play for their clubs. Despite continual roadblocks from the FIGC, the big men’s teams. Juventus F.C., A.S. Roma and A.C. Milan, to name a few, all have provided a place for these players to hone their craft and become the force they are now at the World Cup. The last two years of basically minimal investment from these teams has shown us a simple principle: invest in women’s soccer and the rewards will be almost instantaneous.
So where does the USWNT go from here? For starters, the federation needs to allocate its resources better. Doing just enough for the USWNT and the youth teams will not cut it in the future and the future is quickly becoming the now. Unless they change their stance on how they support the USWNT into a more positive one, we may see a world where the USWNT are not just given a tough test by the powerhouses in Europe, but even the lesser teams will prove to be difficult opponents. Just as Spain showed us on Monday afternoon.