A Rant on Why it Matters that the USWNT is Not the #1 Team in the World
An HGS guest post by @Fitzcamel
It’s hard, seeing something you love go astray. Worse, when you are powerless to do anything but watch it happen. I suspect that’s true in many areas in life. Me, it’s how I’ve felt about the U.S. Women’s National Team for oh, the past six months. Many aspects of how the WNT has been run have left me dismayed, or frustrated, or sad, lately. If I had to pick just one as most aggravating, though, it might be the continuing insistence of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s PR arm that the WNT is the best team in the world ™. We’re not, of course. I’m not sure anybody who follows women’s soccer closely thinks that we are. Who is? Germany, probably, or Japan. Might be France, if they ever figured out how to match their talent with results in big matches. But not us, not any more.
That doesn’t stop the federation from saying so, though—over and over again, at every opportunity, during the play-by-play of every meaningless friendly against second-tier opposition. It’s no different from the way WNT press officer Aaron Heifetz and his minions try to gin up statistical triumphs for the fanbase to be excited about: running up the score against Guatemala in 2012 Olympic qualifiers, say, or the number of international victories in 2013 (mostly in meaningless friendlies against second-tier opposition), or, God help us, #chasingMia.
I find it hard to believe that USSF is so ignorant or naïve as to believe the hype. No, it’s BS, a Potemkin Village to fool little kids and casual fans. Serious fans know it, the soccer media knows it, and USSF knows it. It’s still just PR, though. So why so infuriating? Because as far as I can tell, the federation’s whole approach to the WNT since at least the last World Cup has been a desperate (and unavailing) attempt to maintain that façade. That would explain the consistent choice to give starters minutes in frequent friendlies scheduled against beatable teams, rather than the world’s best; and, conversely, the consistent failure to use the Algarve Cup as a developmental opportunity for young and fringe players, a la the MNT’s January camps. And of course, the decision to fire Tom Sermanni after the 2014 Algarve, and to install Jill Ellis with a mandate of steady-as-she-goes.
The true number one team in the world would not be so scared. The best sides know they’re the best, and thus that they have margin for error—they can pick experimental squads, rest key players, try out new approaches, take risks. They can lose, without the sky falling. A defeat here or there in a friendly doesn’t ultimately say much about a top international side. What matters are the big ones—the World Cup, the Olympics, the continental championships. At least, that’s what I would have thought; but plainly USSF doesn’t agree with me.
No, evidently in the federation’s view it is crucial to make sure everybody still believes we’re the best in the world. That’s apparently how USSF thinks it can get the best return on the money it’s spending on women’s soccer—carefully craft a celebrity image for certain players (Abby, Alex, Hope, Syd, Pinoe), and surround them with a best-in-the-world halo. I guess the idea is that if USSF stops hiding the fact that the halo isn’t actually there any more, it all falls down—endorsers and fans won’t be interested in spending money on the WNT if we’re number two, or three, or four. And who knows, maybe USSF is right? Maybe the best way to make money, in the short-term, is to prioritize the WNT’s image and marketing over its soccer. Of course, USSF is theoretically in this to further the sport of soccer in this country, not maximize short-term shareholder value. Maybe that’s only true when it comes to the MNT.
The flip side of the federation being worried that the money spigot will dry up if fans know where the WNT actually stands on the international stage is that those who are bringing in the money now are the ones calling the shots. And thus did the gods bring us player power. Or, at least, the power of certain players. And those players, beyond the natural desire for playing time and success, have every reason to be keeping a weather eye out for their own financial futures, given where women’s soccer is right now. So the veterans have too much incentive to push to keep themselves in the squad and the lineup well past time; and the federation would rather try and eke out one more World Cup with the old, familiar (lucrative) veterans rather than take the risk of switching things up now. After all, we’ve seen what happens when a side is in the middle of a tactics/personnel transition—and no team has ever gone from the seventh-place match at the Algarve to triumph at a World Cup, right? (What? Oh.)
These problems are only exacerbated by the sheer insularity of the USSF when it comes to the WNT, above and beyond the quasi-club-team structure and culture of the national team itself. The federation genuinely seems to think that it can do what it wants regarding the WNT without ever being held accountable by the media, or anybody else, either. The tone-deafness of its handling of the Hope Solo mess over the last two months is only the latest example.
To be fair, USSF does have good reason to think no one will be held to account for how the WNT is run. It hasn’t happened yet, after all. For one, there’s still not much money in covering women’s soccer. So there are very, very few people who are able to report on and write about the sport full time, let alone with enough of a readership to have much leverage with USSF. That, in turn, allows Heifetz et al. to bully and blackball their way out of facing much serious criticism or negative coverage from people with a deep, passionate knowledge of the subject.
And the journalists who have developed, or are handed, more of a megaphone? There aren’t many who know enough about women’s soccer to ask the right questions, who care enough about the sport (and have the editorial leeway) to write about it regularly, and who have enough critical distance and professional pride to go beyond the first layer of glib, canned responses from the team and the federation. The result tends to be sporadic spikes in media attention, followed by a return to the usual lull—the fire alarm, not police patrol model of journalism. And too often the coverage that does occur merely invents the wheel fresh each time, rather than building on what was learned the last time around.
The result is that USSF and the WNT never have to face consistent, searching scrutiny grounded in a thorough knowledge base. Has there been meaningful investigative journalism into the revenue model of WNT friendlies and player endorsements, and where that money goes? No. Do many people ask whether it makes sense to have named April Heinrichs as the overall technical director on the women’s side, after she coached the WNT to defeat in the 2003 World Cup semis and won the 2004 Olympics playing longball? Not that I’ve seen. After Tom Sermanni gets fired, the party line that the WNT needs a coach who “properly understands the American mentality” appears in endless stories. Attempts to get an honest answer about what that actually means? Not so much. The U17 team can fail to qualify, and the U20s flame out humiliatingly in the current youth World Cup cycle, to a chorus of dismay; but when it becomes clear that the coaches who presided over these fiascos aren’t going anywhere? Crickets. Jill Ellis talks a good game about a fluid possession game and all that—does anybody from a major media outlet question whether it makes any sense to keep starting the same limited set of players and send a squad with an average age of 28 to World Cup qualifiers? For that matter, is there serious critical attention paid to Ellis’s decision to forgo selecting any specialist defensive midfielders in favor of sticking Lauren Holiday, of all people, into that spot? Ha.
No, instead of meaningful journalistic oversight, we get too much happy talk, and recitations of the WNT’s gaudy record (mostly in meaningless friendlies, etc), perhaps leavened with the suggestion that the WNT needs to modernize its tactics, and that the rest of the world is catching up. The notion that we’ve not only been caught but passed hardly enters the picture.
And this, ultimately, is what gets to me. I have little doubt that USSF’s desperate attempt to maintain the lie that we’re number one will ultimately be self-defeating, at the World Cup and beyond. In the meantime, as a WNT supporter I have to swallow the spin from Ellis and from the federation (as duly passed on by some in the media), while watching the technical and tactical gap between the U.S. and France, Germany, and Japan continue to widen. The USWNT is not the best in the world; and if the USSF continues as it has been, we’re not going to be the best again for a good long time.