GOTHENBURG, Sweden — The day before the Olympic final, as I warmed up with several of my new teammates in Sweden, I asked them who they thought would win the gold medal.
“I think the U.S.A. for sure.” “Yes, U.S.A. will win.”
The American women are considered a solid favorite in soccer minds around the world. Last Thursday, in front of more than 80,000 spectators at Wembley and millions more watching on television, they proved that despite the Japanese being crowned World Cup champions last summer, the Americans are No. 1. But can it last?
Those who watched the tournament saw a tough, relentless American team — a team that is deadly in the final third and organized in the back. They saw a team that is determined to win at all costs. But they also saw this team down two goals to a dynamic French attack. They saw a team not able to put away North Korea, and struggle for moments of the second half to maintain a 1-0 lead. They saw a greatly improved Canadian team go ahead against the U.S. not once, but three times. And anyone who watched the final saw a Japanese team that plays like no other women’s team in the world, working the ball from back to front and creating numerous quality chances.
The United States team returns home with a third consecutive gold medal — an impressive feat. There is, however, always more for which to strive. And there are three years until the next major tournament — the elusive World Cup in 2015 in Canada.
I am in Sweden, where women on Sweden’s U-19, U-23 and senior national teams train and compete week in and week out at a high level. As I have done, American female players are slowly dispersing throughout the world to play in leagues in soccer-mad countries such as Sweden, Germany, France, England and Japan. These women have a top-quality environment all year, some additionally competing in the UEFA Champions League.
Plans are in the works for a new professional league in the United States that will begin next year and include some former W.P.S. teams, as well as new ones. I fully believe that there can, and will, be a quality professional league in the United States, but this news brings some important questions.
¶ What exactly will the level be for the first couple of years?
¶ Will players who have found homes abroad return home?
¶ How many teams will compete in the league?
¶ Will it eventually be a year-round league like some of the leagues in Europe?
¶ Is it better for the development of some American players to venture to other countries and learn a new style, or to play together domestically?
The answers will shape not only the look of the United States women’s team for the 2015 World Cup, but likely the long-term trajectory of women’s soccer in the United States.
Without a doubt, we will continue to improve and produce quality young players. The real question is: can we remain solidly ahead of the development of some of the other countries?
It has been a longtime subject of discussion, but I still believe that during the next three years, we need to invest in these areas:
From my short stay in Gothenburg, I have been particularly impressed by the players’ passing technique — one touch, two touch, on the ground, in the air, a chipped pass, a driven pass. It is not only about getting the ball from point A to B. They understand the subtleties of the technique, such as putting the proper weight on a pass. Proficiency is about more than being able to perform advanced skills at a high tempo. It is about being able to do the basics as cleanly and efficiently as possible, as well as choosing the appropriate technique to use at any given moment.
As Americans, we are raised with the mentality to go at a team for 90 minutes and not let up. We are taught, through what is said outright and through what is encouraged, that getting to the goal as quickly as we can is best. This may still be effective for years to come, but eventually there will come a time and a situation when it is not. What will be vital for the American women of the future is to recognize how to manage the game. How can we keep the ball, control the rhythm of play, and then choose the moment to use our deadly speed and athleticism when it is most effective?
We have always had all the raw materials. Our country produces skilled players and phenomenal athletes. US Soccer, the sport’s national governing body, invests tremendous resources into the women’s program, and great support continues to come from those who build professional leagues. The women’s game is still evolving. Now is the time to more fully commit to developing and emphasizing the areas of the game to keep the United States on a course of improvement.
Perhaps it is not about having all the answers at this point. For now, we just need to be asking the right questions. We are No. 1. But how can we stay there?