The U.S. Women Were Drawn into the Group of Death at the 2015 World Cup. That might be a good thing.
By Evan Davis | Photograph by Nicole Miller
[T]he 1999 World Cup cemented the US Women’s National Team’s place as the dominant superpower of the women’s game. They were two-time champions. They sold out stadiums wherever they played. They were so popular that the first professional domestic league for women in this country was established on the back of that emphatic ’99 victory. They were better trained, better conditioned, better coached, and better financed than the rest of the world. This country was more culturally supportive of the notion that female athletes were deserving of respect and adulation in equal measure to their male counterparts. In all things, they were the best.
Now 15 years gone, 1999 is beginning to feel like an albatross around the USWNT’s neck, a feat that an entire Golden Generation of players has yet to replicate. Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Brandi Chastain, and Julie Foudy retired 10 years ago. Two domestic league have come and gone, with a third hoping to find its footing with US Soccer’s financial support.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world caught on. Germany won back-to-back titles in 2003 and 2007, while Japan took down the US on penalties in 2011’s final in Frankfurt. The competition had learned to counter the Americans’ athletic physicality with technical precision, and the USWNT took notice. Since 2008, a new collection of technically polished American hopefuls claimed two Olympic gold medals all on their own, but haven’t closed the deal on a third World Cup victory, the most important prize of all.
For some, time is running out. Abby Wambach will be 35 by the time Canada ’15 kicks off next year. Carli Lloyd will be just shy of 33. Defender and captain Christie Rampone will be 40. For many highly decorated American players, Canada represents a final shot at glory.
The World Cup draw forced American Outlaws into the rending-of-garments, gnashing-of-teeth phase of pre-World Cup anxiety. The top-ranked USWNT find themselves in the undisputed Group of Death in next June’s showdown, seeded against Sweden (#5), Australia (#10), and Nigeria (#35). There’s not a minnow in the bunch. If they finish in second place, the Round of 16 could sap the Stars and Stripes’ resources against top competition. That could leave the team vulnerable in the quarterfinals.
National teams across the globe are better than they’ve ever been. Germany has the most complete squad in the world with the possible exception of the US. Japan is a grandfather clock of perfectly coordinated gears and springs. France’s Champions League-conditioned starting XI can take over matches in an instant. Marta is, well, Marta, as demonstrated by her hat trick against a hapless American defense in Brasilia over the weekend.
Then there’s the immediate task at hand, the foreboding Group D. Sweden presents the US’s most daunting challenge, thanks to the lethal combination play of Caroline Seger, Lotta Schelin, and Kosovare Asllani. Australia is deep, young, hungry, and getting better. Striker Lisa de Vanna is the Wayne Rooney of women’s soccer — tenacious, physical, hot-blooded. Defender Stephanie Catley and forward Samantha Kerr have earned their stripes in the National Women’s Soccer League. The Matildas have a lot of options at every end of the park, and won’t go gently into that good night. As for Nigeria, the African champions have long been the dominant force in CAF. They’ll look to steal draws from the higher ranked squads they’ll face, along with enough points to be one of the four third-placed teams to book passage to the Round of 16.
Those first three matches next June may give American supporters clammy hands and palpitations, but the truth is that the Group of Death is the best thing that could have happened to the USWNT. The World Cup is being played in US time zones for the first time since 2003. American audiences will be tuning in (hopefully) with their highest numbers since the title-winning 1999 campaign. With every group stage match a fierce battle, fans will be treated to world-class soccer, rather than humdrum 8–0 scorelines against cupcakes. The 24-team format means the US is practically guaranteed a Round of 16 berth, and will also most likely make it to the quarterfinals and beyond. Every game will be hard-fought, hard-won (hopefully), and will engender an appreciation of the women’s game beyond the novelty of its very existence.
A quick read of the tea leaves suggests 2015 will replace 1999 as the new defining moment in the development of the women’s game here in America, whether we hoist the trophy in Vancouver or not. It may come as a surprise to all those millions of erstwhile American fans — nostalgic for the days of Mia Hamm’s heroics — when they turn on Fox Sports 1 in June to discover that the world has caught up. Before they have a chance to change the channel, though, they will experience the smartest, fastest, best women’s soccer they’ve ever seen. As a result, that elusive third World Cup title might taste the sweetest.
Evan Davis is a stand-up comedian and proud Toffee living in New York City. His writing has appeared in Film Comment, The Velvet Light Trap, MUBI Notebook, and The House Next Door. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ProfessorDobles.