The United States women’s national team crashed and burned in the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, putting in its worst performance ever. Is it a matter of just changing the coach, or do the issues run deeper?
For many pundits in the United States, the writing was on the wall for the women’s national team. Former head coach Vlatko Andonovski had a long-standing issue with getting his players, some of the best in the world, to execute a cohesive and organized game plan.
Too often the team was left to fend for themselves as Andonovski’s coaching and starting lineup decisions made little sense.
The end result was a catastrophic round of 16 exit from the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, signaling the USWNT’s worst World Cup performance ever.
In what has become all too common in U.S. Soccer, once the debacle of the 2023 World Cup was done with, it was Andonovski who resigned, not U.S. Soccer who fired him. Unlike their male counterparts, the women have seen a variety of coaches, with six full-time managers at the helm since 2000. In comparison, the USMNT has only had four in that time span, not counting the three interim managers who never really were in contention for fully taking over.
With yet another golden generation of players upon them, the USWNT is slowly discovering that their grade A ticket of being the big fish in the sea is all but expired. To renew it will require the federation and women’s program to think long and hard about the next steps.
Best in the World, But for How Long?
The World Cup won by Spain is a clear indicator that new teams are emerging, and different styles are coming to the forefront. While the Spanish women’s team is involved in a major off-the-field scandal with disgraced president Luis Rubiales, on the field no one can deny the strides Spanish women’s soccer has taken.
In fact, according to many pundits, the best women’s sides in the world lie outside of the United States. According to the current IFFHS Women’s Club World Ranking, there are no U.S. teams among the top 40 in the world, with Portland Thorns being the highest NWSL team ranked at No. 45. The likes of Boca Juniors, América de Cali, and Monterrey, respectively from Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico — hardly nations one would associate with the women’s game — are all ranked ahead of every NWSL team.
To Fiorella Rodríguez, a journalist who covers women’s soccer in Uruguay for La Diaria and Radio Carve Deportiva, the United States is no longer that unbeatable country of years past.
“It’s normal for (poor performances) to happen when things are not going well between the coaching staff and the players, but it is not an excuse,” Rodríguez said. “Much less, in this World Cup, Spain lifted the cup with a totally complicated dressing room.
“Undoubtedly, the United States is no longer the only power, that is what that team would have to understand. There are new powers.”
Spain, England, Sweden, Australia, and France all have admirable women’s soccer programs, backed by heavy investment and proper competition both domestically and internationally.
For Rodríguez, the U.S. women are now dealing with the changes that are happening in other nations.
“It is not that there is a lower level in the United States, what happens is that the other countries raised their level,” she said. “Spain is the clear example. In England, Canada, Sweden and even leagues from South American countries like Colombia, things are being taken more seriously and local structures are growing.
“Another thing that has happened is that the current generations are already beginning to be made up of players who had training since they were little girls. That didn’t happen before.”
The U.S. still has a core group of very talented players that include Naomi Girma, Sophia Smith, Trinity Rodman, Mallory Swanson, Catarina Macario, and Emily Fox — all 25 or younger — and one of them will have to step into the shoes of Megan Rapinoe and eventually Alex Morgan to become the new face of the team.
Pay to Play and a Women’s League Still Finding its Feet
Soccer in the United States is still an elitist sport. The next generation of women players still have to go through the pay-to-play model, which cuts off a large demographic of female soccer players.
Throw in that around the world, talented players are finding their way to more professionalized clubs in Europe, South America, and Asia, the U.S. women’s program has a long-term problem.
The professional domestic league is also going through its hurdles as well. The NWSL average attendance increased from 5,000 to 7,000 this season, and the 2023 NWSL salary cap is just $1,375,000. The NWSL minimum salary for 2023 is $36,400, while the maximum cap charge per player is $200,000.
There are players that make double the league max on some of the best European soccer clubs, which could be a growing problem for the league to retain talents who are trying to make the leap to professional soccer much younger than ever before.
For many women’s soccer players, especially those in the United States, the main source of income comes from endorsements rather than their playing contracts. The women’s game will have to balance out. Few if any professional athletes can survive on a $36,000 salary living in New York.
Still, there is plenty of potential for the women’s game to grow.
“The world of women’s soccer is booming,” Rodríguez said. “The structures are undergoing changes for the better. Prejudices are left behind and now we have to fight with the lack of visibility, resources and recognition, issues in which improvements have been made but are lacking. Women can fill stadiums and women’s soccer sells and has interest.
“Women in this sport have an extra backpack to play soccer and it is the burden of being a woman. They are exposed to gender discrimination, harassment, and abuse situations. And in this sense, another lesson is that there is no longer silence. Luckily the voice is raised in the face of these injustices.”
No one can deny the growth of the women’s game all around the world and the huge potential the game has. Even in the United States, the game can get better, and the biggest commodity of the women’s game in the country is still the USWNT.
For U.S. Soccer, the landscape has changed for the men, and it also has changed for the women. It can’t be business as usual as a lot of countries around the world are altering their tactics, especially soccer-mad countries like England, Argentina, Brazil, and Italy.
In a federation known for having difficulty shaking things up, the U.S. women’s program is at a crossroads. Grow with the times or stay stuck on what it used to be.