If you think that the world is catching up to the United States women’s national team, then you’re 10 years behind.
We’ve been hearing the tired platitude that “the world is catching up” for some time, and results at the youth levels continue to inform the reality that a dramatic shift has already occurred.
The U.S. women bowed out of the U-20 Women’s World Cup in the group stage for the first time on Monday, finishing third in Group C behind Spain and Japan. Spain finishing top might be another head-scratcher for those who haven’t been paying attention, but the reigning U-19 European champions have emerged as consistent threats at the youth level.
That the Americans didn’t get out of this group, albeit a difficult one, is another chapter in nearly a decade of results that have proven the world has indeed caught up at the youth level. Since 2010, the U.S. program’s World Cup results are as follows:
2010: U-17s fail to qualify for World Cup; U-20s lose to Nigeria in quarterfinals (PKs)
2012: U-17s exit at group stage; U-20s win World Cup (senior team wins Olympics)
2014: U-17s fail to qualify for World Cup; U-20s lose to North Korea in quarterfinals (PKs)
2015: Senior team wins World Cup
2016: U-17s exit at group stage; U-20s finish fourth (senior team: Olympic quarterfinals)
2018: U-20s exit at group stage; U-17s TBD
This is not the world-beating American record you might expect – certainly not at the youth level. And to some degree, the results don’t tell the whole story. Among them are fluky qualifying scenarios for Concacaf-hosted World Cups, as well as extreme tiebreakers with three teams level on points at the end of group play. But they generally paint the picture that the U.S. is not some indomitable force on the youth level; the Americans have never won the U-17 World Cup.
In recent years, this sentiment has graduated up to the senior stage, where the pool of good teams – not necessarily World Cup contenders at the moment, but certainly those difficult to play – has expanded. The Dutch winning the 2017 European Championship – as the Germans exited in the quarterfinal and began a down period of their own – illustrates this. So, too, does Australia’s rise to join the world’s elites.
The world is not catching up; on the youth level, it has caught up – and, in some cases, surpassed the United States. That isn’t news to anybody in Chicago, either; they are and have been aware of this. Asian youth teams are in long-term residency camps; European players are turning professional as teenagers.
Will the U.S. eventually face these issues at the senior level?
Bowing out of a difficult U-20 group shouldn’t be viewed in a vacuum which just accounts for results. As convenient as it may be for those in charge to say that, it’s true. Youth World Cups hold varying degrees of importance to federations who want to groom young players for the senior level. That’s the case for U.S. teams that won World Cups – like the 2008 U-20s, with Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux and Alyssa Naeher – and teams that crashed out – like the 2014 U-20s, which featured present-day senior-team stalwarts Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh and Rose Lavelle. Those tournaments did not make the players, by any means, but they were part of the players’ growth within the program.
More widespread, systemic issues are what need addressing. Is the college system helping or hurting, as competing nations see their teenage players enter the professional ranks? Is the Development Academy really the answer at the younger ages? U.S. Soccer has tried to answer this by standardizing the program from the top down, seeking out youth players that fit the mold of the long-successful senior-team players. But does that come at the cost of overlooking unique individuals who can move the program forward?
The past few weeks have brought mixed answers to these questions across all age levels. Stylistically, the senior team dominated at the Tournament of Nations and ultimately finished first, playing a dynamic brand of soccer which has so severely lacked over the past two cycles. That the Americans could possess the ball and trouble top-tier teams in such a variety of ways stands in stark contrast to two years ago at the Olympics. Just as it’s late to be saying the world is catching up to the U.S., it’s equally lazy to say that the U.S. senior team can’t keep the ball. This U.S. team, right now, is miles better on the ball and going forward than the one that was at this stage of World Cup preparation four years ago. That all is certainly a sign of progress.
The U-20s offered hints of that throughout the group stage of this World Cup, though they were harder to see. Tactically, Jitka Klimkova’s side looked more developed than Michelle French’s 2014 and 2016 U-20 teams. Similar to how the U.S. senior team actually out-possessed Japan a week earlier, the U.S. U-20s weren’t out of their depth against the Young Nadeshiko; they lost on a stunning 40-yard goal which could have been dealt with better. Taking nothing away from Spain, which was better with the ball on the ground, even the two goals the U.S. U-20s conceded in the 2-2 draw were the product of poor defensive errors. The clause to that last sentence, however, is part of the problem.
Sophia Smith was clearly the most talented player on the field, and it was actually an over-reliance on playing Smith in behind – the kind of direct play the U.S. will never go entirely without – which appeared to stymie the tactical ideas of this group.
A few hours after the U-20s bowed out of the World Cup in France, the U.S. won the Concacaf U-15 Girls Championship in Florida, pulling away from Mexico in extra time to win 3-0. Even that U.S. team overcame a group-stage loss to guest team Portugal – yes, Portugal – in an eye-opening result. Mexico continues to offer reminders at the youth level that the U.S. has some challenges even within its own region (Mexico won the U-20 qualifying event earlier this year).
So, no, the U.S.’ U-20 World Cup disappointment isn’t a new development. The U.S. has been playing catch-up at the youth levels for some time. Will that trend eventually begin to play out at the senior level? The Americans still haven’t finished worse than third at a senior World Cup, but eventually, that too will change. The rise of Spain, the Netherlands and others at younger ages has already forecast that. And when it happens – whether in one year or five – it shouldn’t come as a surprise.
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