Much to baseball fans’ chagrin, Americans seem to love soccer just as much as “America’s pastime.” According to a 2018 Gallup poll, Americans name soccer as their favorite sport within 2 percentage points of Americans who name baseball. This love of soccer has Americans investing more resources into Major League Soccer (MLS) academies capable of developing elite players. Despite all this, the men’s trophy count has been lackluster. But American fans still have a World Cup-winning squad to root for: the U.S. women’s national team (USWNT).
Disaster struck the men’s team in 2017. Trinidad and Tobago, a country over 50 places below the U.S. men’s national team (USMNT) in FIFA rankings, defeated the USMNT, meaning the U.S. failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup for the first time since 1985. Also in 1985, the USWNT played their first competitive game and has since grown into one of the most powerful dynasties in all of American national sports.
In 30 years, the USWNT has won three World Cup trophies and four Olympic gold medals and. The USWNT is the most successful team in both premier sporting events, while they have dominated the FIFA women’s rankings in the 21st century. They’ll look to continue their leading performance in this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.
In stark contrast, the USMNT has never won a World Cup in over 100 years of competing. The USMNT achieved their highest ranking of fourth place in 2006, and the team currently sits in 25th. Disregarding FIFA’s questionable methodology in obtaining those rankings (some question why Switzerland is ranked higher than Spain), the USMNT has consistently underperformed.
So why is the women’s team so much better relative to the men’s team? On the one hand, women’s soccer is somewhat less competitive than men’s soccer. Women’s soccer features 50 fewer FIFA ranked national teams than men’s. While the USMNT would be happy with a draw against any of the top 30 teams, the USWNT considers any result other than a victory against any team as a failure.
Additionally, Title IX, the 1972 civil rights legislation enacted to increase gender equality in college education, has provided scholarships to players looking to eventually turn professional. As a result, U.S. women’s soccer has a tremendous competitive edge in their consistent stream of talent compared to other countries such as Spain.. In 2018, the U.S. had over 1 million youth female players, whereas Spain had just 20,000 players.
Funding shortages are a major issue for such footballing giants like Spain or Brazil that lack similar Title IX policies. Brazil’s men’s team has won a record five World Cup trophies, while the women’s team is the most successful women’s team in South America with six Copa America trophies. Yet the Brazilian women’s team have still had to deal with a lack of resources despite their success. Former Brazilian women’s team captain Aline Pellegrino struggled with institutional gender discrimination and eventually quit the team for a steady paying job.
So in contrast, credit must be given to the American government for supporting women’s athletics. And that support isn’t just institutional, as the 2015 Women’s World Cup final became the most-watched soccer game in U.S. television history. Despite this massive achievement for women’s sports, debate still remains over how to provide the USWNT the same level of marketing and pay as the USMNT with the greater global demand for men’s soccer.
But why has the USMNT failed to impress for much of its existence? For one, the talent pool has been plagued by bureaucratic power struggles and needless inefficiency. At the heart of this issue are lower-division soccer organizers like the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), American Soccer League (ASL) and United Premier Soccer League (UPSL), who have fought bitterly to monopolize the talent stream into the USMNT rather than to collaboratively coexist. Moreover, when American soccer organizations and teams disagree, they sue with remarkable ease and further polarize opposing parties rather than negotiate terms for the greater good of American soccer development.
The USMNT has also not matched their female counterparts because of their culture of complacency. Unlike the USMNT, the USWNT has constantly had to fight for equal status in the U.S., whether it be for equal playing conditions or equal pay. This fighting mentality has become ingrained in the women’s team. Some USMNT players and coaches have admitted that a lack of motivation and fighting spirit are reasons why the team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
“After having been with U.S. Soccer after 30 years, it’s disappointing to me that it seems that we’ve lost the fight for the last three or four years,” former USMNT Assistant Coach and then-USMNT U-20 Manager Tab Ramos said, speaking to ESPN in 2018 about USMNT’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
When the team failed to qualify, some critics argued that the USMNT relied too much on retaining aging players at the cost of developing talented youth. Without younger players to challenge them, the veterans grew complacent. However, since the wake-up call loss to Trinidad and Tobago, the USMNT has made notable progress in youth development. The revitalization of the squad resulted in promising results against major national teams, including a pair of 1-1 draws against 2016 European Champions Portugal in November 2017 and against 2018 World Cup Champions France in June 2018 (notably, many of those same French players starred during the World Cup).
MLS academies have invested more resources into developing youth talent and as a result, the USMNT now features more young and skilled players. Stars like Christian Pulisic (who recently signed for Chelsea F.C. in a fee that made him the most expensive American soccer player ever) and a wave of American youngsters are getting valuable experience playing in more competitive leagues abroad.
Overall, American soccer fans can be optimistic U.S. teams can bring home more trophies.
The USWNT is in a great position to defend their 2015 Women’s World Cup title, currently occupying the top FIFA ranking. Moreover, the USWNT was drawn into a favorable group, with Sweden being the only serious threat to the USWNT getting past the group stage.The USMNT should look to recent underdogs and 2018 World Cup finalists Croatia as proof that soccer is fueled by both belief and talent. If the USMNT qualifies for the 2026 World Cup, the support of American crowds will majorly factor into the USMNT’s success. The 1994 World Cup, the last edition hosted by the US, smashed numerous World Cup attendance records en route to becoming the most attended World Cup in history. The support of American fans played a role in the US advancing to the round of sixteen for the first time 23 years ago. Despite historical failures, given the modern American passion for soccer and the rise of young prospects, the USMNT is on course to redefine American soccer and potentially has the best chance to make their most successful run in any World Cup in 2026.