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Opinion: The USWNT may no longer be on top of the women’s game

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The USWNT are the best team in the world, but other teams are catching up.

FOOTBALL-OLY-2020-2021-TOKYO-USA-CAN Photo by MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP via Getty Images

The USWNT has dominated international soccer for over three decades but that dominance may be reaching the end that so many have predicted for years. This doesn’t mean that the USWNT will suddenly become a bottom-tier team, it may just be that winning major tournaments may not be in their grasp again for awhile.

The USWNT are essentially the gold standard in the women’s game due to their on-field and off-field presence. Of the eight World Cups that have happened so far, the USWNT have won four of them and in seven Olympic tournaments, the USWNT has won gold four times and medaled in two others. Their successes make them the standard that every other team is trying to emulate and their fight for equal pay is something that other countries would like to replicate for themselves. Even from a purely marketing standpoint, the USWNT are icons and have used their platform to create a space in the sports celebrity world that wasn’t available for many team sports until that 1999 World Cup.

Those standards may never be topped by another country and the USWNT themselves are faced with a tough challenge to not only reclaim top spot but stay there. There isn’t one team that could topple the USWNT but there are a few contenders that have shown and will probably show again in the near future, that they too should be considered as the standard in women’s soccer.

The USWNT are moving away from pole position

It’s hard to pin point exactly when the USWNT began their journey downhill. In between the 2015 and the 2019 World Cup, there were moments where you could feel a shift in how other teams viewed and/or approached the USWNT. In 2016 and 2017, the USWNT faced one of their more miserable years in performance, something that many hadn’t witnessed for a very long time.

Part of what may have caused some of those stumbles in-between World Cups was the roster turnover. Roster turnovers are to be expected in each cycle for the USWNT but this time around, very few of the newer players seemed to stick around lone enough to cement their places. That trend continued on to this past summer Olympics in Tokyo which saw 15 players that had featured in the 2016 Rio Olympics still on the roster (this also includes Kriste Mewis who was with the team in 2013 and 2014 but then was not called up again till December 2019).

SOCCER: OCT 23 Women’s - USA v Switzerland
Abby Dahlkemper during her first game with the USWNT
Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Jane Campbell, Abby Dahlkemper, Tierna Davidson, Adrianna Franch, Rose Lavelle, Casey Krueger, Catarina Macario, and Lynn Williams were the “new” players on the roster but most of them made their debut over three years ago, showing that there hadn’t been a big shift in the roster since 2016. We should also note that the average age of the USWNT Tokyo Roster was 29.7. That showed that since 2016, the USWNT aren’t developing younger players well enough to replace the veterans and therefore, have no fresh creativity or “spark” within the current roster.

Some of the younger players that people have kept an eye on felt that they could make a difference were given call ups, but just like before the 2019 World Cup, for whatever reason, they were not kept within the national team setup and were deemed unnecessary for the Olympics. Considering all of the issues we say crop up during the tournament, players like Sophia Smith, Midge Purce or Alana Cook could have given the USWNT the “new coat of paint” it really needed.

United States v Portugal - 2021 WNT Summer Series
Alana Cook and Margaret Purce before a USWNT game
Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

With the Olympics and the cycle over now, many expect the afore mentioned players and others to become more entrenched in the national team setup. There is a World Cup in two years and in order for this team to remain ahead of the pack and continue to dominate at major tournaments, younger players must be integrated into the team sooner rather than later. The upcoming friendlies and the January 2022 camp would be good starting points.

Spain are on the rise

Some of the major players in Europe have given the USWNT a run for their money (Sweden most recently) but a team that has risen quickly since their debut at the 2015 World Cup is Spain. Currently ranked 12 in the world, they have their fair share of veterans like Jenni Hermoso and Irene Paredes, but they have a wealth of youth talent as well. Ona Battle, an outside back, is 22 and currently playing at Manchester United. Aitana Bonmati, 23, was named Champions League Final MVP during Barcelona’s 4-0 domination over Chelsea.

FBL-WC-2018-WOMEN-U20-ESP-NGR
Aitana Bonmati with Spain’s U-20 team
Photo credit should read FRED TANNEAU/AFP via Getty Images

Patricia Guijarro, 23, has been a mainstay for Barcelona and has shifted from midfield to center-back when needed. Laia Aleixandri, 20, is one of the most promising players in Europe. The center-back currently plays for Atletico Madrid although Manchester City has tried recently to get her to England, but Madrid is not budging.

Key to all of this is the captain Alexia Putellas. The Barcelona midfielder may be the best midfielder in the world right now and her play over the last two seasons for both club and country have been brilliant. With Putellas at the helm, Spain have every reason to believe they can win every tournament they enter and after the scare they gave the USWNT in France and recently at the SheBelieves Cup, they will believe they can get the better of the USWNT now too.

The next few years

Over the next three summers, we will have back to back to back women’s tournaments. In all three of them, I think we will see unique winners who have not won a major tournament so far.

The next major women’s tournament is Euro 2022 in England. The hosts England will be under new leadership as former Netherlands head coach Sarina Wiegman will be looking to lead them to glory.

Olympics”Womens soccer - Quarter finals - Netherlands vs United States”
Sarina Wiegman as the Netherlands coach
Photo by ANP Sport via Getty Images

This will be an opportunity for not only England to show where they are as a team but others like Spain, current Silver medalists Sweden and Germany will also be looking to stamp their mark on the women’s game. Those of us on this side of the Atlantic will be eager to see who will come out on top as that team will be considered a contender to stop the USWNT from making it three World Cups in a row in 2023.

After their showing in Tokyo, the 2023 World Cup co-hosts Australia have given themselves every reason to push for a major tournament win in two years time. Is it likely to happen? No but with a longer tournament, Australia will be able to keep their players fresh and probably have a deep run at the World Cup. The European powerhouses of England, Sweden, Spain and Germany will all be looking to take the title away from the USWNT and it will be a big ask of Australia to overcome them and the USWNT on home soil.

Issues should be addressed now and not later

The USWNT has been the best team in the world for years, it’s natural that they cannot stay on top forever. However, with the addition of younger players in the team, they could give themselves a chance to regroup and reload before the upcoming tournaments. Those tournaments are coming up quickly so it will be vital for head coach Vlatko Andonovski and GM Kate Markgraf to figure out what went wrong in Tokyo and how to avoid that happening again in 2023 and 2024 (Paris Olympics).

If there is one thing everyone knows about the USWNT, it’s that they like proving people wrong so maybe they will prove me wrong and go on to win every major tournament in the coming years. Maybe this Olympic tournament was off because of the circumstances surrounding the Olympics, maybe it was simply a bad few games by them. Whatever the cause may have been, the problem has to be solved by Andonovski and Markgraf within the next few months. With 2022 technically being an “off year” for the USWNT, they have more than enough time to figure things out. If they don’t, the rest of the world may finally catch up to them.