Even if the 2019 U.S. Women’s World Cup team is as formidable as its victorious predecessors in 1991, 1999 and 2015, its road to the tournament’s final weekend is likely to be far more difficult, given the rise of women’s soccer in Europe.
With England and host nation France joining perennial powers Germany and the United States among the top four ranked teams in the world, parity is far greater in the elite ranks than at the bottom.
The reasons are varied, but they begin with money.
“It’s no surprise to me that the top four teams are the teams that have invested the most money in the product. The teams that have had the most backing by their federations, that’s where the separation is,” said JP Dellacamera, a veteran soccer broadcaster in the United States who is the lead play-by-play announcer for Fox Sports at the World Cup.
The rise of England and France has come at the expense of Japan and Sweden, which historically have had success in international play and remain strong. Japan won the World Cup in 2011 and lost in the final to the United States four years ago; Sweden defeated the Americans at the 2016 Olympics. Canada and Australia also have made great strides in recent years, and Italy has surprised many at this World Cup by winning its first two matches to secure advancement to the knockout stage.
None of this is lost on the U.S. women, who were soundly outplayed by France and fell, 3-1, in a friendly in January in Le Havre. At the four-team SheBelieves Cup invitational played two months later in the United States, they managed only a 2-2 draw against England, which went on to win the event for the first time.
Moreover, several members of the U.S. Women’s World Cup team have competed alongside Europe’s best players in recent years, handsomely compensated to bring their skills to overseas club teams. Defender Crystal Dunn played for Chelsea in 2017-18. Midfielder Lindsey Horan, 25, skipped college to turn pro, landing a six-figure deal with Paris Saint-German. And offensive playmakers Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, for a time, were members of European power Olympique Lyonnais, which recently won its sixth UEFA Champions League title and fourth consecutive.
U.S. Coach Jill Ellis, a British expatriate who was born when England still banned women from playing soccer on proper fields, has tracked the gains of women’s soccer abroad with personal and professional interest.
“France, and now England, have made a strong investments in their leagues,” Ellis said this spring. “They both have established leagues in their respective countries that attract top international players, so they are not only growing their own style of game, they’re also getting an influx of players from all over the world. And that helps.”
After decades of indifference to women’s soccer, FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, announced in October 2018 a global strategy to increase revenue and grass-roots participation.
It set a goal of doubling the number of female players to 60 million by 2026 and asked its member nations and associations to develop comprehensive plans to further develop the women’s game.
Critics point out that FIFA could invest far more in women’s soccer and demand minimum spending levels on the women’s game, or a minimum percentage of revenue, on its member countries.
To date, the most meaningful gains have been spurred by established European clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain, Olympique Lyonnais, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea.
England’s Women’s Super League, formed in 2011, has escalated the development of players, both domestic and international, and sparked fans’ interest in league play and the 2019 World Cup.
Count Wayne Rooney, the all-time leading scorer for England and Manchester United, among its boosters.
“Of course I’ll be watching,” said Rooney, who’s now headlining Major League Soccer’s D.C. United, when asked about his interest in the Women’s World Cup. “Since Manchester United started the women’s team, the standard is getting better. The crowds are getting to 20,000 fans at the games, which is brilliant.”
For Dunn, her tenure with Chelsea was pivotal to her development and appreciation of England’s commitment to the women’s game.
“My time there was really eye-opening,” said Dunn, 26, a North Carolina graduate who plays for the North Carolina Courage in the National Women’s Soccer League. “Just being a part of big club that pours a lot of money in their program on the women’s side, it was great to see. We were treated so professionally, training on the same pitches that the men were playing on.”
That’s a seismic shift from the utter disdain that led England’s Football Association to ban women from playing on soccer league grounds in 1921, proclaiming “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged."
That ban wasn’t lifted until 1971.
Nonetheless, it couldn’t ban soccer from the minds of girls and women.
Soccer is steeped in England’s culture. As Ellis explained, that’s part of what has made European women quick studies.
“I grew up watching soccer,” recalled Ellis, who didn’t play organized soccer until her family moved to the United States in 1981, when she was 15. “Yes, it was guys. But all those [girls and young female] players have grown up watching. It’s the national pastime in France and England, so I think that’s really important.”
In Dunn’s experiences, it’s manifested in the extraordinary “soccer IQ” of England’s female club players.
“Before women were playing organized sports in England, I’m quite sure they were watching all these men play in the Premier League and they were knowledgeable about the game,” Dunn said. “So when the women’s league starts up and they’re affiliated with the men’s clubs, their IQ is outstanding. We had an 18-year-old Scottish player who played like she had been a professional for six years. It’s the culture that they build over there, watching these games every single day and knowing these players. Whereas, soccer in the U.S. definitely came later. “
The upshot of England’s investment in the women’s game has been a steady climb up FIFA’s rankings — from 13th in 2003, when FIFA issued its first world rankings for women, to 10th heading into the 2011 World Cup and sixth when the 2015 World Cup kicked off.
Despite the Lionesses’ semifinal run 2015, England’s football federation demanded better, sacked the coach and brought in former England national team member Phil Neville, 42, to coach the women. Neville reportedly has been given free rein and a prodigious budget to bring home a World Cup champion.
In March, Neville’s Lionesses overtook France for No. 3 in FIFA’s world rankings, an all-time high, after beating Brazil and Japan and drawing against the host United States en route to winning the SheBelieves Cup.
But it is France, most experts believe, that poses the greatest threat to the United States’ pursuit of a fourth World Cup title.
If each team wins its group, they’d meet in a quarterfinal clash in Paris at 47,257-seat Parc des Princes. Neither outcome would be good for the tournament, depriving the 2019 World Cup of its defending champion or host nation for the final three rounds.
Like England, France has cultivated a rich reservoir of talent through its club teams. Seven of its 23-member World Cup team played for Olympique Lyonnais.
In 2011, France ranked seventh in the world.
And Les Bleues have gotten off to an impressive start, as if determined to silence skeptics who predict they’ll crack under the pressure of competing at home. France throttled South Korea, 4-0, in its opener, then handed 12th-ranked Norway a 2-1 defeat, with an own goal accounting for Norway’s lone score.
Veteran U.S. defender Becky Sauerbrunn, 34, who’s competing in her third World Cup, embraces the fact that competition atop women’s soccer is more intense, calling it “an excellent thing.”
“I love seeing federations invest in their women’s programs and then seeing a return on that investment in how they’re performing on the global stage,” said Sauerbrunn, who helped the United States win the 2015 World Cup, finish runner-up in 2011 and claim Olympic gold at the 2012 London Games. “I want to see soccer continue to grow globally, because I know in the U.S., we’re going to continue to fight and push the level of investment.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the U.S. women’s team won a World Cup title in 1995 rather than 1999.