The USWNT’s worst World Cup ever is both anomaly and wake-up call


MELBOURNE, Australia — There were tears, ugly tears, in the aftermath of the briefest major tournament in U.S. women’s national team history. There were hugs, bereft and beaten hugs, as American players exited the 2023 World Cup by a margin of millimeters. They’d prepared for a lengthy stay Down Under. Instead, they crashed to Earth earlier than ever before. And so, even with emotions raw, a reckoning began.

“The game is evolving,” Alex Morgan said.

And the USWNT, suddenly, rather than driving its evolution, is scrambling to keep up.

“I’m still hopeful with the future of this team,” Morgan emphasized. “I still stand by that.” Teammates did, too, their cheeks still damp. They spoke with pride about a rising generation who will contend for World Cups. They spoke about the brilliance of Naomi Girma and Sophia Smith, and the heights they’ll someday hit.

“I think that it’s hard to see it right now,” Lynn Williams acknowledged, “but we’ll be back.”

“The potential of this team, moving forward, going into the Olympics next summer, it’s gonna be outstanding,” Lindsey Horan said.

And perhaps they’re correct. Their Round of 16 exit was indeed an anomaly. It was an anomaly spawned by injuries, poor coaching and poor luck.

But it was also a wake-up call.

Superpowers fell here at the 2023 World Cup. The gap between soccer’s queens and understudies shrunk. The world “caught up” to the USWNT, just as so many predicted it would, and some players interpreted this shrinking as reason to celebrate. “We should be proud that those days [of blowout wins] are not here,” Crystal Dunn said. “As a member of the U.S. women’s national team, we have always fought for the growth of this game globally, and I think what you’re seeing is that.”

What their narrative ignored, though, was the American defects that allowed the world to catch up.

This was not an inevitability; it is a European-made, American-permitted reality.

The defects largely lie within a youth system that prices out millions of families and fails to incentivize player development. They were once obscured by a decades-long, Title IX-fueled head start. But they crept toward the surface in recent years, then broke ground here in Oceania. They’re partially responsible for the worst-ever USWNT performance at a major tournament. And it is obvious, now more so than ever before, that they must be addressed.

The USWNT was eliminated from the 2023 Women’s World Cup earlier than any of the past iterations of the team. (Photo by Joe Prior/Visionhaus via Getty Images)

A system that built world champions has crumbled

The United States ruled the Women’s World Cup’s first three decades for three core reasons: A massive population, unmatched wealth and a landmark federal law.

It couldn’t match Europe’s soccer culture and infrastructure. But it could, and did, pass the Education Amendments of 1972, which achieved what many European countries had refused to do. Title IX, a 37-word statute within those amendments, mandated opportunities for girls in sports. It catalyzed college soccer, which provided competitive environments, which on their own comprised the premier developmental system in international women’s soccer.

“Yeah,” said Mirelle van Rijbroek, U.S. Soccer’s director of girls talent identification, “because there was nothing else in the world!”

The American youth system also became best-in-class, because demand for girls soccer soared, and clubs sprung up nationwide to supply it. They multiplied throughout the ’80s and ’90s, completing a pathway to the USWNT, and creating world champions.

But that was never their goal. In an unchecked industry, their primary purpose was not to craft creative midfielders; it was to serve customers (parents) and make money.

Those perverse incentives hardly mattered on the international stage while European powers shunned women’s soccer. But they shaped a messy landscape where winning, marketing and recruiting are often prioritized over individual development.

In 2017, with Europe and others ascending, U.S. Soccer attempted to intervene. It launched the girls Development Academy, a replica of its successful overhaul on the boys side, to introduce standards and clean up the landscape. But it met resistance from established youth clubs. It took a “confrontational,” inflexible approach to the intervention, according to coaches who witnessed it first-hand. And within three years, it failed.

So here we are, with wonderfully gifted athletes ill-prepared for the highest levels of international soccer technically and tactically.

Here we are, with senior World Cup results finally reflecting a decade of youth World Cup struggles. The U.S. failed to advance from its group at the last two Under-20 Women’s World Cups. It has twice failed to qualify for the Under-17 tournament. It has not reached a final in either age group since 2012. While U-level results generally aren’t paramount, they foretold of the USWNT’s 2023 flop.

And they stemmed from all these deep-seated pipeline problems — defects that some U.S. Soccer officials know they must fix.

U.S. Soccer has yet to come up with a solution

When they shuttered the Development Academy in 2020, Major League Soccer was prepared to preserve the boys pathway. The National Women’s Soccer League wasn’t financially stable enough (or big enough) to serve a similar function for girls; but someday, that could change. NWSL clubs are already investing more than ever before in youth development. They are years, perhaps decades away from replicating the economic model that sustains boys academies. There are also only 14 of them, with big markets still untapped. But they’re likely a key player in any future overhaul.

U.S. Soccer, of course, is the key player for now — or at least the ringleader, the potential coalition builder, and the primary beneficiary. It could work with major sponsors, such as Nike, to fund a reformed system. It can’t rebuild the entire system, but it could work with partners to reshape the top of its fractured youth pyramid.

It could also work with the NCAA to reshape elite college soccer, which has been surpassed by European clubs as the world’s premier platform. There has been talk of establishing a 10-month calendar for top college programs, as opposed to the three-month season that stunts a 19-year-old’s development. (Progress on that front, though, seems to move slowly.)

Despite its Round of 16 exit at the 2023 Women’s World Cup, the future remains bright for the USWNT. (AP Photo/Scott Barbour)

U.S. Soccer could also work within the current system. One problem, van Rijbroek explained in a June interview with Emox News, is that the current youth landscape — where the clubs with sound developmental philosophies are scattered across multiple pathways, including the Girls Academy and Elite Clubs National League, among and between clubs that chew players up and spit them out — is difficult for parents and kids to decipher. So she envisioned a scheme where U.S. Soccer could visibly promote clubs that do adhere to standards, “so that you can see the separation,” she said. “If clubs do a really good job, I think they should be rewarded for that” — and kids who aspire to play for the USWNT should be able to recognize them.

The chosen solution, for now, is unclear. What’s clear is that identifying it is necessary. Because without it, the gap won’t just close; the European powers who’ve invested in women’s soccer will invert it.

“Going forward, the Frances, the Englands, the Spains will go past the U.S.,” Miriam Hickey, a longtime youth coach and former Development Academy director, told me in an interview this spring.

She didn’t think that would happen until 2027 or 2031, but then she watched the USWNT stumble through a 0-0 draw with Portugal, and texted: “Looks like my predictions are coming true already…”

USWNT still a world power despite cracks in its pipeline

Nobody, to be clear, is predicting that the USWNT will suddenly become a World Cup afterthought. Round of 16 exits will not become the norm. There were extenuating circumstances in 2023. The team’s captain, leading scorer, top young attacker and 2021 Player of the Year — four different individuals — all missed the tournament due to injury. And head coach Vlatko Andonovski failed to build a coherent team without them.

Even still, the USWNT bossed Sweden for 120 minutes. It created enough chances to win each of its four games. It scored only four goals, but analytics suggested that it could have reasonably expected to score nine. Such is the persistent depth and quality of the American players.

So, with a new coach, they could challenge for Olympic gold in Paris.

They could push for a fifth star in 2027 — especially if the World Cup returns to North America; the U.S. and Mexico are bidding to co-host it.

But their country, hindered by the malfunctioning pipeline, has relinquished its head start.

Other advantages have also dissipated. The USWNT, the most well-funded women’s national team in the world, used to be something of a club team, gathering regularly and building chemistry, on and off the field. The recent growth of women’s club soccer has limited those gatherings. The balance of power in the club game, meanwhile, has shifted toward the European Champions League, away from the NWSL, where all but two USWNT stars (Horan and Catarina Macario) play.

But it’s the earlier years, when kids acquire skills and world-class futures, that need reimagining.

“I think it’s gonna be clear,” Hickey said, “that we have to do something in this country to make sure that girls have better environments” — and again, she thought the moment of clarity would come years down the line. But it ambushed the USWNT this month. And it will, or should, shape U.S. Soccer’s response to the flameout.

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