Lauletta: What the USWNT summer tournament means

Dan Lauletta May 10, 2017 14
U.S. Soccer is bringing a second elite-level WoSo tournament to the United States.

U.S. Soccer is bringing a second elite-level WoSo tournament to the United States.

Wednesday’s announcement that the U.S. national team would host a summer tournament against Australia, Brazil, and Japan came as a surprise to absolutely no one. News of it had been whispered about since the beginning of the year, and other federations had hinted about summer matches in the states. But if there is one thing certain about U.S. Soccer, it is they do things at their own pace. And so Wednesday was the day with hunches about West Coast locations being confirmed as Seattle, San Diego, and Los Angeles.

So what does this newly minted Tournament of Nations mean for the USWNT and the women’s soccer landscape in general? Here are my lukewarm takes (can’t have hot takes on something I have know of for months).

This is better than the SheBelieves Cup

The Tournament of Nations is essentially the same as SheBelieves—USWNT versus three really good teams, rotating through a region of the country over the course of a week—but I like this one a whole lot more. I like the notion of a summer tournament more than one in March. And I enjoy the flexibility of moving it around the country and knowing it won’t likely be 18 degrees with a whipping wind as it was at Red Bull Arena a few months back.

Mostly though, I enjoy the opponents a lot more than having the three best European sides in. The SheBelieves opponents are challenging—as evidenced by the U.S. finishing last at this year’s renewal—but the trio of Australia, Brazil, and Japan offer contrasts in style, which will make their games against the U.S. more interesting and also make for more appealing undercard matches.

The U.S. has a fascinating history against two of the three opponents. The team’s worst major tournament loss came to Brazil in the 2007 World Cup and its best non-final victory came at Brazil’s expense at the next World Cup in 2011. Two games after that, the World Cup final against Japan began a trilogy that saw those countries meet in three consecutive major tournament finals.

Australia have yet to make their mark on the U.S. in a match of importance but were toe-to-toe for an hour in the World Cup opener two years ago and are a budding world power. There is also much overlap between the domestic leagues, which should make for lots of familiarity between U.S. and Australian fans.

This is not to say the U.S. does not have a strong history with the SheBelieves teams, especially Germany, and it is likely just a personal preference with which you may well disagree. I happen to like this group and time of year better.

One more reason to prefer this tournament. Tournament of Nations might be a bit pretentious for a four-team, invitation-only event, but it sure rolls off the tongue better than SheBelieves Cup.

Who benefits the most

U.S. Soccer should be able to turn a nice profit to add to their $100 million surplus, so there is that angle. And just like with the go90 deal putting money into NWSL, I will never blame an individual or organization for making a business decision that yields cash. But that doesn’t make it the best decision.

On the field, Jill Ellis’s team certainly needs more tests against quality opposition, but you can argue that the other three teams all stand to gain more by coming here for the tournament.

Tops on the list is Brazil, who has finally decided to stay awake for the entire cycle rather than hibernate until the time comes to build a World Cup roster. The Samba Queens might be too late to get Marta a World Cup or Olympic medal, but if Brazil continued to put energy into getting better every year instead of just two out of every four, there is no reason they can’t soon be at or near the top of the world.

As for the U.S., it will never be a bad thing to have top 10 teams as opposition, especially one after the other after the other, but it could be to their long-term detriment to spend so much time at home and so little time in enemy territory. Prior to the Olympics, the U.S. had not played a match outside North America since the 2015 Algarve Cup. Whether or not that impacted performance in Brazil is forever open to debate, but it could be that the U.S. are getting a bit too comfortable with home cooking. (note: The U.S. does have friendlies in Sweden and Norway next month—their first away friendlies since March 13, 2015, in England.)

what’s not to like

Two things. One is the impact on NWSL. Two is the rich get richer.

Multiple NWSL coaches told me weeks ago that they have been told this tournament will indeed pull players from their clubs at some point, though they were unsure if it would be before, after, or both. That aside, the tournament ends on a Thursday in California and all 10 NWSL sides play Friday and Saturday. Of the five games, the Thorns host the Dash on Saturday up the coast in Portland, and the other four games are in the Eastern time zone. On the other end, everyone plays July 22, five days before the first matchday of the summer tournament.

Simply put, this is U.S. Soccer cannibalizing the league it supports with its own money and ideas. And it should not happen. Obviously players needed to be pulled for World Cup and Olympic camps, but there is no excuse for a summer without either of those events to see NWSL—already in an attendance lag—matches have to be played without some of the league’s most marketable faces. The World Baseball Classic is an annoyance to MLB managers, but in a million years would never be played at a time that forced players away from regular season games. The same goes for the World Cup of Hockey.

The other element here I don’t care for is that this tournament, and the SheBelieves Cup, mostly serves to take the best teams in the world and help them get even better. Both are in their infancy, but down the road I would like to see them expand to eight teams and spread the wealth a bit more in an effort to help build out the viability of the women’s game. Teams like the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, Iceland, and New Zealand are all ranked inside the Top 20, but no one thinks any of them have even a faint chance of winning the next World Cup. Inviting them to tournaments such as these would help, especially SheBelieves since the advent of that event served to pull its four competitors out of consideration for the Algarve and Cyprus Cups. Is it U.S. Soccer’s job to help its competitors narrow the gap? Not necessarily, but it wouldn’t be a terrible thing if they did it anyway. We’re calling it the Tournament of Nationals. Let’s see a few more nations get involved.

  • Steven

    US soccer’s priority is testing the USWNT against the best competition there is not giving lesser teams the chance to play elite teams (rightly so). And elite teams leaving the Algarve and cyprus cup opens the opportunity for other teams to play in those tournaments.

  • HOFCToDi

    What a joke!

    15 of the Top 25 FIFA women’s ranked member associations reside in UEFA.

    UEFA does not need the assistance of the USSF to prop up competition.

  • HOFCToDi

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  • Jana Sheffield

    I agree with Dan that the USWNT should continue to play teams that aren’t in the Top 10 (and ideally expand our, now 2, U.S. tournaments in order to do so), and here’s why:

    I know some people hate the “grow the game” line that is sometimes tossed around, but I see it more as mutual self-interest rather than some kind of charity work. When teams ranked, say, 15-25 play the USWNT, it gives the U.S. exposure to more styles of play, exposes them to teams for which they may not have extensive film to preview, and affords more room to, yes, experiment with new players, formations, and tactics. The incentive for the opponent is that those teams can improve their own play by being forced to raise their game against competition they may not otherwise encounter outside WCQ tournaments. We’ve seen friendlies where teams lose to the USWNT by 4+ goals, and players on the losing side come out of the game saying that it was terrific experience and an amazing opportunity, and that’s not because other NT’s enjoy getting routed.

    Further, playing a top team, whether the U.S., Germany, Sweden, Japan, etc. has the potential to give less-developed/less supported teams more positive visibility in their domestic markets. Of course I know that many countries have a steep uphill battle to getting their WNT games on television (we can’t even get Germany vs France on ESPN3 during a U.S. tournament!) or even significant news coverage, but I doubt it hurt the Russian WNT’s reputation to be invited to the U.S. for two matches, regardless of the scoreline and even in light of the SBC results.

    In the long-term, increasing the field of high quality teams and the global market for WoSo is in the best interests of USSF. While it may seem counterintuitive to want to improve your opponents’ play, I’d like to see the USWNT go through WCQ without worrying they’re going to be injured by players who sometimes resort to less-controlled physicality because the situation in their country doesn’t allow for full-time WoSO professionalism (and yes, I realize that even top professional injure themselves and others and that it’s just an inherent risk in sports). Beyond that, decreasing the quality gap between teams ranked #1 (or #2 in our case) and #20 over time will expand the global market (more fans, more clubs/leagues, more sponsors, more full-time professionals), increase global profits, and (hopefully) increase investment and development from FIFA and domestic federations, further driving that growth. And the more money there is in global WoSo, the more money there will likely be in USSF.

    One of the reasons cited for expanding the men’s WC from 36 to 48 teams is to bolster growth in countries whose teams are just on the fringe of making it to the final competition. That reasoning applies to the women’s WC as well. Expanding to 36 teams will also expand profits from attendance, television rights, sponsorships, etc., but only if there are 36 teams playing such quality soccer that fans will pack the stadiums, turn on the TV, buy the merchandise, etc. Thus, narrowing the quality gap is essential to the business growth of the game globally.

    To build that future reality, top teams like the USWNT need to sometimes play teams that maybe aren’t the same challenge (although, let’s not count our chickens ’til they hatch…) as Germany or Japan or Brazil. It’s not a favor to Switzerland or Russia or Thailand, nor, in my apparently unpopular opinion, is it solely a cash-grab. It’s in our own long-term self-interests.

    • kernel_thai

      Not about growing the game it’s about growing the cash surplus. If they were serious about growing the game they’d take the team on the road more. Better if FIFA was interested in promoting the woman’s game they’d cover the expenses of the WC champions to play a certain number of matches in second tier countries over their four year reign. It should be part of the deal to show off the currents holders in each of the ConFeds. FIFA can afford it.

      • HOFCToDi

        The USSF is not responsible for growing the game. The responsibility for growing the game lies with FIFA.

        “FIFA’s mission is develop football everywhere and for all, to touch the world through its inspiring tournaments and to build a better future through the power of the game.”

        Obviously, the FIFA charter does not apply to the women’s side.

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  • TsovLoj

    I really don’t think pulling the NT players away for a weekend is a huge deal. It’s been demonstrated time and again that the presence of particular USWNT stars does little or nothing for attendance, and frankly I like having the journeyman players have their day; I think there’s a player development angle there, but it also does something for me as a fan.

    • KC

      tell that to orlando. their starting lineup: 3 Brazilians, 3 Australians, 3 US internationals. they won’t have enough players on their roster to field a team.

      • mockmook

        The USWNT doesn’t need Campbell for the tournament — perhaps they leave her with the Dash.

  • RollingBeatles

    Lesser teams do need to play elite teams, but ultimately they also need to develop a program well. Like Japan did. Or how England have been getting more serious, developing a strong league to become a contender.

  • sudeep das

    Netherlands definitely merit an invite

    • Alex

      They’re a little busy hosting a tournament of their own at the time.

      • sudeep das

        Obviously I am not talking about this year but of the non WC & Oly years ahead