Opinion: After decades of dominance, the rest of the world is catching up with the USWNT

REIMS, France — The United States is no longer far superior to everyone else.

That isn’t a political statement, mind you. Rather, it’s a reflection of the changing landscape in women’s soccer.

It wasn’t so long ago that you could look at the bracket for a World Cup or an Olympics and pencil the U.S. women in for a spot in the finals with Germany, Brazil or Japan occupying the other spot. Now there are no guarantees.

The Americans are the top-ranked team in the world and, yes, still favored to win a second consecutive World Cup title. But a likely quarterfinal matchup looms with France, which put everyone on notice with its clinical and confident 4-0 victory over South Korea in Friday night’s opener. Germany, a two-time World Cup winner and the reigning Olympic champion, should not be counted out.

There’s also England, which showed its bronze medal in 2015 was just the beginning with a win earlier this year at the She Believes Cup, which also included the U.S., Brazil and Japan. Loaded with talent and ambition, Australia is a trendy darkhorse.

There are also upstarts like Spain and the Netherlands, the surprise winner of the European championship in 2017.  

“In the last five years, four years, we’ve seen the gap close within nations,” Australia’s Caitlin Foord, who is playing in her third World Cup at 24, told USA TODAY Sports.

“In the top 10, you could play a team three times and you wouldn’t be able to pick it who’s going to win. Whereas before you’d say, `The U.S. is going to win these games, Germany is going to win these games,’” Foord said. “You don’t really know. It’s exciting.”

Because of its size and the impact of Title IX, the United States for decades has had an inherent advantage over the rest of the world. The gap was made wider by the indifference or outright hostility that was historically shown to female players in other parts of the world.

England, France, Germany and Brazil all banned women from playing soccer for parts of the 20th century. Women in parts of Africa and the Middle East still have to fight for the right to play – not just soccer but all sports.

But in the last decade, and the last five years specifically, more and more countries are investing in the women’s game.

Argentina is starting a women’s professional league this month, and its soccer federation said this spring it will create a high-performance center to speed development of the game. After decades of neglect, Chile’s federation now has someone who specifically oversees women’s soccer and has dramatically increased funding for the program. All of South Africa’s games are televised, and corporate sponsorship has allowed the federation to schedule games against stiffer competition; Banyana Banyana played both the United States and Norway in preparation for their first World Cup appearance.

There are still hurdles, of course. But more and more, countries are realizing there are gains to be made in the women’s game.

“It’s a whole ecosystem of changing the mindset,” said Karina LeBlanc, the longtime Canadian goalkeeper who is now head of women’s soccer for CONCACAF, the North and Central American and Caribbean region.

“But I think that’s what’s happening, and I think that’s why you’re seeing the numbers filling up, that’s why you’re seeing the quality of the game going up, that’s why you’re seeing these teams for the first time come in who’ve never ever qualified for a World Cup,” LeBlanc said, referring to the four teams making their World Cup debut in France.

“Most importantly, that’s why you’re seeing people showing up now, because they’re finally aware that women can play the sport. And not only can they play it, they can make a difference in showing the power of what women can do.”

USWNT stars Alex Morgan and Julie Ertz at training on Saturday. (Photo: Michael Chow, USA TODAY Sports)

This isn’t altogether altruistic, of course. Countries – and corporate sponsors – are realizing that there’s money to be made in the women’s game. 

A Spanish league game this spring drew more than 60,000 people. A game in Italy drew almost 40,000. And Friday night’s game between France and South Korea drew a sellout crowd of 45,261 with a record audience of 9.8 million for the broadcast.

“That’s been our argument all along,” said Aly Wagner, who played for the U.S. from 1998 to 2008 and is the lead analyst for Fox at the World Cup. “If you actually invest in this project – because, by the way, it’s really entertaining but it’s also really good business – your (return on investment) is there aesthetically with the eye. And it’s going to be there with the dollar. Or whatever currency we’re talking about. That is the message.”

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There are ramifications, of course. As countries invest, their programs get better – see England. As teams improve, the competition gets tougher.

The Americans are seeing that firsthand.

The U.S. women made their earliest exit from a major international tournament at the Rio Olympics in 2016, losing to Sweden in the quarterfinals on penalty kicks after the Swedes bunkered down in the second half. The Americans had seen other teams pack it in on defense, but never an established team like Sweden.

Coach Jill Ellis said it made her realize the Americans would have to change the way they played. She switched to a 4-3-3 formation that highlights the strong U.S. attack and, in theory, should make it easier to break defenses down.

“Coming out of the Olympics, I said we’ve got to make sure we’re prepared for this new piece of evolution,” Ellis said. “You have to now prepare for everything. That means our players now have to be even more focused about the tactics and the nuances of the game.”

The Americans are still the team to beat. But as each year passes, there are more and more teams capable of doing it.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter: @nrarmour

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