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.