Most people would agree that U.S. Soccer has officially reached an all time low. After crashing out of World Cup contention, calls for the dismissal of the United States Soccer Federation’s (USSF) President Sunil Gulati and for the implementation of promotion/relegation illustrate just a few of the certainly justified disgrace and inner turmoil.
But some would argue otherwise. They would point to U.S. Soccer’s current No. 1 FIFA ranking, its world record four Olympic gold medals and its world recordthree World Cup titles. I am, of course, not talking about the men’s team. I am referring to the ever-successful U.S. Women’s National Soccer team (USWNT).
Even though the men’s team may dominate headlines and garner higher TV ratings, the USWNT consistently outperforms them. The men’s team has only reached the semifinals of a major tournament once — when there were only 13 teams involved in the 1930 World Cup. Meanwhile, the Rio Olympics of 2016 marked the first time where the USWNT didn’t reach the semifinals of a major tournament.
The USWNT’s formula for success comes down to our unique youth soccer culture and other countries’ apathy towards the women’s game. Ever since the implementation of Title IX in 1972, young girls’ participation in soccer has grown at an unprecedented rate. One of the least popular women’s sports in the United States during the 1960s, it passed softball as the third most popular a few years ago. Title IX also spurred the creation of women’s teams at universities, providing a base for successful national teams for years to come.
Meanwhile, in many parts of the world, soccer for women was shunned. Germany banned women’s soccer in men’s venues until the early 1970s. In other countries, sexism and stereotypes regarding female athletes impeded growth for the sport. FIFA didn’t hold a World Cup until 1991, and the entire tournament wasn’t broadcasted internationally until 1999. In the United States, the sport had been growing for almost 20 years before the sport was thrust onto the global stage.
Their head start began to yield results when they won the first-ever World Cup in 1991. But they received almost no recognition for their accomplishment; a total of three people greeted them at the airport when they returned from China, where the tournament was held. It was a different story in 1998. USWNT’s thrilling 5–4 penalty shootout victory over China in the 1999 World Cup precipitated a boom of popularity for the sport. The iconic image of Brandi Chastain, on her knees with her jersey clutched in hand, screaming in celebration after her game-winning penalty kick, was plastered on numerous national news outlets, becoming a symbol of opportunity for aspiring young female athletes.
Today, the USWNT continues to dominate the global game. It’s true that U.S. soccer fans will sorely miss players like Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Christian Pulisic at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. But we can take solace that in the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France, the likes of Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan will take the field and propel our country to victory.