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Does the 2023 World Cup signal the end of USWNT dominance?

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When Sweden eliminated the U.S. women’s national team from the 2023 Women’s World Cup on Sunday, it marked the end of an era. It had been 4,403 days since the Americans last felt the sting of World Cup elimination, that being the 2011 Women’s World Cup final against Japan. Now, in a little less than two weeks, a new World Cup champion will be crowned.

There was a certain inevitability about the USWNT’s demise, too — after all, no team wins forever. Yet the U.S. team’s World Cup exit felt more seismic, as if years of cracks appearing in the American game — poor performances in youth World Cups, the paucity of creative players, the wake-up call at the last Olympics, to name a few — suddenly became chasms, ending in a World Cup run that was far below the U.S. team’s usual standard.

So is the end of this era for the U.S. a harbinger of an even more severe backslide? Is the U.S. looking at no longer being a dominant force in the international game? That depends on one’s definition. Does “dominant” mean winning trophies or being a contender?

Throughout its history, the USWNT was at least the latter, and the team won often enough to accomplish the former. During the Americans’ spell as World Cup champions, they failed to win the gold medal at two Olympic games. This included a quarterfinal exit in 2016 to Sweden that bore an eerie resemblance — a defeat via a penalty shootout in a game that the Americans dominated — to Sunday’s encounter. The U.S. also went 16 years between World Cup wins in 1999 and 2015, but that was interspersed with three Olympic triumphs. All of this points to the fact that there have been ebbs and flows to the U.S. team’s preeminence.

The problem in 2023 is that with the exception of the Sweden game, the U.S. didn’t ever look like a contender, recording its worst finish at a major tournament. The preceding Olympics weren’t much better even as the U.S. claimed a bronze medal, hence the doubts about where the U.S. is heading.

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How the U.S. got to this point is, in some respects, down to its own success. Even as it was winning World Cups and Olympic gold medals, the U.S. was setting a standard it wanted other countries to emulate. And that is precisely what more nations have done, albeit with their own twists.

Investment at the club level (mostly in Europe) has increased, which has raised standards. Initially, that resulted in teams like England, the Netherlands and Spain rising through the ranks. Now, that impact is having a ripple effect in other countries like Colombia — which has eight players on its 23-player roster who play in Europe — as well as Morocco, which has 13 players in Europe, nine of them in France, England or Spain. (Morocco have also financial backing from the royal family, which has focused on grassroots efforts to give young players a chance to develop.)

There’s also the obvious fact that when teams rise up, others must fall. That was the case in this World Cup, with Brazil, Canada and Germany all failing to get out of the group stage. We’re talking about the eighth-, seventh- and second-ranked teams in the world and while the U.S. felt that impact as well, it may not be as severe as for the aforementioned trio.

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How much blame lies with Andonovski for USWNT’s World Cup failure?

Luis Miguel Echegaray questions the tactics of head coach Vlatko Andonovski after the USWNT crashed out of the Women’s World Cup vs. Sweden.

“Women are playing in countries that never had access to the game before,” said OL Reign GM Lesle Gallimore, who also has been a collegiate head coach and commissioner of a youth league. “So it’s just the natural evolution of the sport and the world’s game. I’m not trying to sound whiny about it, but I do think when you step back from the [bitter] pill of our early exit, and maybe people not enjoying the performance as much — I’m sad about it too — I am just as elated at the growth of the game globally and how much people are paying attention.”

The increased investment has had an effect beyond just additional playing opportunities. The number of teams that are more organized and skillful is higher than it’s ever been. The third group stage game, against Portugal, was a case in point: Portugal boasted a 56% to 44% possession edge in its 0-0 draw against the U.S., a game Portugal nearly won. This has served to erode the historical U.S. advantages of fitness and athleticism.

University of Virginia women’s head coach Steve Swanson served as Jill Ellis’ assistant on the United States’ World Cup-winning sides of 2015 and 2019. He is among those who don’t think the U.S. is a diminishing force, and warns against an overreaction to the Americans’ performance at this World Cup.

For example, it’s a small sample of games. Would the post-tournament conversation be the same if the U.S. had played better, but lost a quarterfinal to Japan? Or if players like Mal Swanson (no relation to Steve) or Catarina Macario had been available? For Swanson, it doesn’t matter how the team did. There are issues that need to be addressed and he wants a critical analysis of everything, from talent identification to how the player pipeline functions.

“You don’t want to miss the problems as opposed to the symptoms,” he said.

One issue Steve Swanson notes is the kind of player the U.S. is producing. He estimates that because other national teams are so much fitter and more organized, there is 40% less space in which to operate than there was even five years ago. That puts an even greater premium on players who can make decisions and problem-solve in tight spaces.

“We aren’t going to out-athlete, out-compete and have a better mentality than these teams anymore,” Swanson said. “That might have been good 20 years ago. It’s not now. I’m not saying that can’t be our bread and butter, or that it can’t give us an edge. But just because we’re fit, athletic and have a great mentality doesn’t guarantee wins, especially at that level. There’s got to be much more of an onus on decision-making and the technical side. And those are things that we need to change throughout our different growth periods and phases.”

In a country the size of the U.S., that won’t be easy, given that the “pay-to-play” system at the youth levels, and the emphasis on winning at the expense of skill, are entrenched. Swanson admits the U.S. seems “kind of stuck” when it comes to player development, but one change that could nudge it in a positive direction is the professional game playing a greater role in player development. That happened on the men’s side, where U.S. players are now in much more demand in Europe.

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How much blame lies with Andonovski for USWNT’s World Cup failure?

Luis Miguel Echegaray questions the tactics of head coach Vlatko Andonovski after the USWNT crashed out of the Women’s World Cup vs. Sweden.

At present, not every National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) team has a youth program. The league doesn’t have a homegrown player rule either, though that is in the works. In light of the abuse news that engulfed the NWSL over the past two years, the league has instead, quite rightly, been focusing on getting its on-field product and player safety systems right. But instituting homegrown initiatives would increase the number of ways to become a professional. It wouldn’t be just a “college or bust” scenario, with a few high school outliers like Alyssa Thompson thrown in.

“I think everyone has to be patient. It’s not something that we’re going to solve overnight,” Gallimore said. “I’m still a believer that there doesn’t have to be one linear route to wear the crest. But I do think the pro game now has evolved. Our own league [the NWSL] has evolved to the point where we have to have a presence in that space and [determine] what that looks like in developing a player who’s able to thrive as a professional.”

All that said, the U.S. still has some exceptional players. The likes of Naomi Girma, Lindsey Horan and Sophia Smith form the basis of a talented group, while the Sweden game was a reminder that the U.S. can still outplay one of the world’s best teams. It’s also worth noting that the U.S. system is helping to produce performers like Jamaica’s Khadija “Bunny” Shaw for other national teams. That’s why University of North Carolina women’s head coach Anson Dorrance, who managed the U.S. to its first World Cup win in 1991, said he “isn’t in a panic” about what happened in New Zealand and Australia, pointing out that the eventual return of Mal Swanson and Macario is “going to completely change things.”

“We’ve got a pipeline,” Dorrance said. “We’ve obviously got to solve problems in certain parts of the field. We’ve got the population to solve those problems. So, I’m not worried about the soft pockets on the field for us, because I think those are going to be absolutely resolved.”

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Alex Morgan ‘not planning’ retirement after World Cup exit

Alex Morgan says she has no immediate plans to retire after the USWNT was eliminated from the World Cup by Sweden.

Despite the optimism for the future, the doubts raised at the past two major tournaments are hard to ignore. For the U.S. to be in the conversation again when it comes to contending for trophies, changes need to be made in terms of how the U.S. does things, and those changes must go beyond who the next coach will be. The USSF is tasked with driving that change though there are doubts there too, especially after the development academy was shuttered in 2020.

“I just think our federation can’t change directions every time the people [in charge] change,” Gallimore said. “I think they have to commit to something and really commit to it and do it. Do it in a real way that’s sustainable. That’s probably the sharpest way I can put it.”

Most of those changes likely won’t happen in time for the Paris Olympics, which kick off in less than a year. It will likely be up to a new coach to tap into the existing well of talent and make the most of it. There is a longer time horizon for the 2027 Women’s World Cup, which the U.S. is bidding to host along with Mexico.

Overall, there is confidence that the USWNT can rebound, but also urgency. Recent results demand a response.

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