Under threat: USA's unequaled domination in women's soccer

A few days ago, I watched defending champion North Korea beat the USA 3-0 during the U-17 Women’s World Cup. The North Koreans dominated the game in all fronts even though they scored all their goals from set plays, namely corner kicks. The only dimension that I would think that our girls were better at was their athleticism. The 3-0 loss marked the largest margin of defeat for the USA in the history of the biennial U-17 World Cup that launched in 2008. USA had beaten Cameroon with the same score a few days before thanks in part to poor officiating.  The U.S. U-17s did not impress me there either. 

(Before this article was published, Germany beat U-17 USWNT 4-0. I did not watch the game so I cannot comment on it. But even if our team moved on to the next round by beating Germany I would not have changed a single word of this article. Unfortunately, now I have to: the 4-0 loss to Germany is now the largest margin of defeat for USA in the U-17 World Cups)

On the other hand, the U.S. U-17s never have won the U-17 championship since its inception. They were runner-ups once (2008) and did not even play a semi-final since then. The USA did not even qualify for the U-17 World Cup twice (2010 and 2014) in a World Cup where up to three teams represent Concacaf (both times it did not qualify it lost in the semifinals on penalty kicks in qualifying competitions that sent only two teams to the finals hosted by Concacaf teams). North Korea won the U-17 World Cup twice, Japan, South Korea and France once. It is obvious that at this level we do not do well internationally. I have seen comments blaming the coach, Mark Carr, for the 3-0 loss. There might be merits to this criticism since all three goals were scored form corner kicks. One of the primary concerns of a NT coach should be set plays since in international tournaments lots of goals are scored from set plays. But I still personally think that the contribution of the NT coach is limited by the quality of her/his players. The quality of the players is a reflection of the player development system that converts them from raw talent. 

Let us make the assertion “the contribution of the NT coach is limited by the quality of her/his players” clearer: When the USA lost the first two games in the 2016 Hexagonal, the Federation ended Jurgen Klinsmann’s contract and appointed Bruce Arena as the head coach. It made no difference the USA still did not make it to the World Cup 2018. The players mattered and some of the key players had reached their age of expiration. Even if U.S. Soccer has the funds to bring in the best coach on the planet, I doubt that the USMNT will reach the quarterfinals in Qatar. 

Turkey lost to Sweden 1-0 in Turkey and was demoted to the C category in UEFA’s Nations Cup a few days ago. The starting lineup of the Turkish MNT had six players who were developed by different European youth development systems. Genetically and ethnically, all 11 players represent the demography of Turkey. Turkey has a population of 80 million whereas there are at most 6 million immigrants in Europe who have originated from Turkey: 80 million vs. 6 million and five players vs. six players. I think it proves my assertion: “The quality of the players is a reflection of the player development system that converts them from raw talent.” Although the two above given examples are for MNTs, I think the same is true for the WNTs. Both of my assertions are not logical tautologies, but are true under most circumstances.

There is dominance in the international arena for the older age groups. There were nine U-20 Women’s World Cup so far and the USA competed in all nine. The U.S. U-20s were champions three times (2002, 2008 and 2012) and played three semifinals and two quarterfinals. The worst performance was this year; the USA couldn’t pass the group stage. (Germany won three times, North Korea twice and Japan once). As far as the World Cup itself is concerned, USWNT qualified to all seven World Cups, won it three times and at least played a semifinal in the others. (Germany won it twice, Japan and Norway once.) USWNT has won four gold medals and one silver medal in the Olympics. The worst performance came in 2016 with a fifth-place finish. (Germany and Norway won the other two gold medals)

If you look at the FIFA rankings you will see that the USWNT was ranked nothing but first and second since 2003. 

At this level presently, USWNT performance can only be compared -- just a notch below -- to the Basketball USMNT in the Olympics – an unequalled domination.

How did we achieve this unequalled domination and is this sustainable?

The first and foremost reason is Title IX of 1972. The law triggered not only women’s soccer but all women sports through universities. The USA had a jump in women’s sports whether it is individual sports or team sports. In the 1970s and 1980s when women’s soccer started to bloom in clubs and especially in colleges in the USA, for the rest of the soccer world was still a men’s sport. England can claim to be the founder of soccer but that that soccer was meant for gentleman not for ladies. Remember the phrase “ungentlemanly conduct”! The USA can now easily claim to be the founder of women’s soccer.

Both the effect of Title IX and college soccer made the USA WNT to be the best by a good margin in the world in the 1980s and even 1990s. In those years, the only competition came from Scandinavian countries, Germany and to some extent from China. There were 61 years between the first men’s World Cup (1930) and the first women’s World Cup (1991). Today FIFA has more members than the United Nations. Men’s soccer has infiltrated all countries across all continents on the planet regardless of culture or religion but we cannot say the same thing for women’s soccer. There are still strong religious and cultural barriers between women and soccer. .

Although on the men’s side there are six Conmebol countries in the top 20 men's rankings there is only one (Brazil) on the women’s side. One explanation could be the dominance of macho culture in Latin America. You have to go down to the 41st ranking on the women’s side to come to Uzbekistan to find a predominantly Muslim country. On the other hand, there is more parity in the representation of confederations in the rankings. In the near history, all men’s World Cup semifinalist was from either UEFA or Conmebol. On the other hand, the semifinalists in the women’s World Cups were distributed among all confederations except CAF and Oceania. In the men’s top 20 ranking, there are 13 UEFA, six Conmebol and one Concacaf team but the women’s side has representations from all confederations except CAF. Although there had been parity in the women’s World Cups, only recently we are seeing a fierce competition in the various age group women’s World Cups. 

Our continuing dominance in the U-20 and Women’s World Cup could be explained by the widespread college programs in our country. Women find a very competitive environment to further their development. Only recently, we started seeing good high-level competitions in other countries; namely professional leagues or national amateur leagues. College women’s soccer gave us the edge for the older aged women groups along with the fact that we started women’s soccer decades before many countries.  Only in the last 20 years did the European and Asian countries start to invest in women’s soccer. This year’s relatively poor performance by the U-20s as well as the worst-ever finish in the 2016 Olympics might be disturbing signs of not being able to sustain our unequaled domination in women’s soccer.

For the younger age groups, our relatively poor performance in the U-17 World Cups can only explained by the fact that the problems that exist in men’s youth player development system are also prevalent in women’s youth development systems. One can also argue that the scouting is not done properly and that we do not field the best players in the age groups. Although I cannot rule this out categorically, I find it improbable. But it is a topic worth looking into. We are unfortunately not up to par in youth development in both girls’ and boys’ soccer compared to our competitors.

Until we have a coherent and integrated youth development system across all states, both genders will not be able to compete reasonably well with their counterparts from other nations. This might have a domino effect on our “unequaled domination” in women’s soccer. As I said earlier, “The quality of the players is a reflection of the player development system that converts them from raw talent.” Whether our socio-economic landscape from which we draw our raw girls’ talents is comparable to other competitor countries’ is an issue to be vetted. My gut feeling is that the girls draw their raw talent from families around the globe from similar socio-economic families. This gives us hope to sustain dominance in women’s soccer as long as we fine-tune our youth development systems. But our dominance in the years to come will no longer be “unequalled” like in the past. 

Ahmet Guvener ( is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, TX.

20 comments about "Under threat: USA's unequaled domination in women's soccer".
  1. Bradley Rogers, November 22, 2018 at 6:12 a.m.

    “One can also argue that the scouting is not done properly and that we do not field the best players in the age groups. Although I cannot rule this out categorically, I find it improbable.”

    The argument I’ve heard is that identification priorities are focused on athleticism and goal scoring at too many positions. And that leadership doesn’t value midfielder qualities that would help us better control a match. 

  2. R2 Dad replied, November 23, 2018 at 6:02 p.m.

    BR, We can look at how the USWNT fills positions to see that athleticism/goalscoring filter. They're often converting forwards to the back line somewhere, or midfielders to outside backs. In a theoretical sense, I like the idea because it's an acknowledgement of the total football concept where players all over the field can contribute to the attack and can present a scoring threat, though that's just an element of the overall system. But in reality I think our Nats teams should be working to identify specific traits/characteristics that are required at positions--especially where we are weak. Against teams that will press our back line (there aren't many but the ones that do are top teams), we will continue to struggle, play long balls into channels--tactics lower-quality teams do to survive. Jill Ellis will accept this because we generally get so many chances, and ususally that works--unless we're playing against a top team where chances are much fewer. But how often have you seen really good defending from our Nats teams? Excellent 1v1 defending, world-class stuff? I'd say never, really. Agression, yes. Tactical fouling, yes. Top defending? Not so much. My belief is the Nats value hulking centerbacks that can bypass dmids/centermids so there is no focus on having a couple good dmids in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1. Until we play japan/france/germany we don't need these types of ball-playing defenders. And then, in a semi, the need is a huge problem. We're configured to steamroll teams rated 5-50.  JE pulled a rabbit out of her hat 3 years ago, so I'm hopeful she will find a way to do it again next year. I think she will need to bench Carli Lloyd--international soccer punishes these aging stars in critical moments, and we won't be able to afford it when it finally comes. I think THAT is the big call for Jill Ellis in 2019.

  3. William Thomas, November 22, 2018 at 10:21 a.m.

    Very good point about Title IX which gave an advantage to the USA girls and enthuesed the national as well as the world when Women's soccer took off.  The problem was lack of technical traning by competent coaches or even a serious National program to develop talented players.  Now the tide of improving international teams are passing us buy while we are stuck in the sands of indifference and lack luster leadership at the youth level.  Is US Soccer watching the same games as we are?

  4. frank schoon, November 22, 2018 at 11:41 a.m.

    Good read, Ahmet. I so agree with the qualifications you enumerated  on why the US women have dominated.
    But one thing I don't understand is the Turkish situation as far as men soccer. Considering it is a large country with large soccer base, Turkey soccer is a second or third tier country. It has never been a power, or even a short time period where Turkish soccer dominated Europe, nothing. It has never been giving the world an new thinking impulse in soccer in how to play. It has never great stars or great team(s). Just by law of average and the number people in that country , you would think a great talent would have been born there , nothing... I don't get it! 
    You mentioned "player development" but that is a new concept floating around in the past 20years.
    Great teams of the 70's, 80's ,60's like Ajax whose players  never developmental program, instead these players learned their game mostly from pickup soccer than joining club to play for on the side ;and even then  the Turkish soccer was 2nd, 3rd tier in the world
    I just don't understand what Turkish problem is.....

  5. Ahmet Guvener replied, November 22, 2018 at 1:58 p.m.

    Frank it is a long story
    Unfortunately it is a political story more than anything else. Ozil and Arda TURAN has the same gene pool but look at what they are now..,

  6. frank schoon replied, November 23, 2018 at 12:54 p.m.

    Ahmet, I hope, one day, you would explain the Turkish circumstances. You write interesting columns about soccer and it would behoove the American soccer fan how politics, geographical and otherwise can influence the development of soccer of a country....

  7. Karl Schreiber, November 22, 2018 at 1:19 p.m.

    A good article.

    However, having been involved and familiar with youth soccer in western states and the formative years of USYA in the seventies and eighties, I’d like to add a significant element in the establishment of programs for girls that then lead to college and women programs: The Amy Love [?] case in the jurisdiction of California Youth Soccer – North. Because of the absence of highly competitive girl’s soccer leagues, Amy, apparently skillful and competitive, wanted to play on a boys team and her parents threatened a law suit. Not sure how the case ended. However, with the guidance of youth soccer administrators (Don Greer, Karl Grosch, Peter Jebens et al), the concept of “separate but equal” was introduced at state and national [USYSA] levels. Separate competitions but equal opportunities. This led to an enormous increase of girls soccer in parallel to the grassroots movement for boys, with the girls programs quickly amounting to 25 to 30 % of total youth players.

    The mass-participation/recreational concept for youth players of those years [70s, 80s…] was the basis for successful developments of competitive youth programs in parallel to competitive leagues, for college and then professional soccer in western states I was familiar with.

    We (in Washington State) knew about the development efforts for Title IX through our association with Cliff McCrath of Seattle Pacific University. Wow, that was a long time ago.


    About losing the advantage we used to have over foreign teams: it is the soccer culture, the status of soccer in society, the opportunities to watch high-quality soccer, the increased attention of top clubs to female soccer. The opportunities playing for the same club as Messi…

  8. Kevin Leahy, November 22, 2018 at 1:24 p.m.

    College soccer is an advantage to our women and I don't believe that identifying talent should be as political as the boys. Having coached teenage girls, I know that they don't watch soccer. Your development has to be hindered when you don't see different ways that, players go about there business. When I played, I wanted to imitate everyone that could do things I hadn't seen before.

  9. frank schoon replied, November 22, 2018 at 1:29 p.m.

    Kevin, "I wanted to imitate everyone that could do things I hadn't seen before." that is so True!!

    A youth player needs to have that drive and need to learn.....That is an element of 'street soccer' 

  10. R2 Dad replied, November 22, 2018 at 2:40 p.m.

    My observation is that our kids aren't so interested in watching because it's not part of the social fabric. Once your kids are attending matches with you, grabbing something to eat while you walk to the stadium, wearing the same scarf as your neighbors, enjoying the local match, seeing the players around town or visiting your school--these are all important aspects of the game in general that embed in the minds of young people.  Once we have that across the country, soccer will overtake the mindshare of other sports and our kids will be ready to absorb everything about the game. I was unhappy the Deltas folded here in SF because we looked forward to the whole experience and now feel deprived of it because of soccer politics. Local professional soccer will help drive interest and passion, but USSF is only interested in the top-down, MLS-flavored solution.

  11. frank schoon replied, November 22, 2018 at 9:45 p.m.

    R2, it is difficult. In the beginning the only way for a kid too watch or show interest is for him to know that there is a star like Zlatan playing, or a Messi, for he is not going to watch the game and look for the tactical intricacies  which doesn't interest him...This is why it is so important to bring over stars to the MLS. Look what happened a couple of weeks when LA when too Minnesota and drew over 50000 because of Zlatan. 

  12. Kevin Leahy, November 22, 2018 at 2:24 p.m.

    I agree Frank. You just don't find very many females doing this. Most of the boys I coached did.

  13. frank schoon replied, November 22, 2018 at 9:36 p.m.

    Kevin, you're right, you don't find this with girls...

  14. Bob Ashpole, November 22, 2018 at 10:44 p.m.

    The thing that scares me the most is the creation of the girls DA. Uniformity creates a culture of  mediocrity. 

    In past generations our outliers played for multiple clubs--ethnic, USYSA, and AYSO. They played pickup and deliberately practiced. The girls played on organized boys teams as well as played pickup including 1v1 against older boys and men. That is how players excelled in the past. Now USSF prohibits playing on multiple teams and segregates girls and boys by gender.

    Sad. Sad. Sad.

  15. frank schoon replied, November 23, 2018 at 11:11 a.m.

    So True, Bob. The DA program for boys/men in itself produces nothing but programmed stiffs. If I look at women/girs soccer program there is not one girl that shows any individuality. Been looking at women college soccer- it's just pathetic; the way they play is so programmed,  boring and predictable and of course the men's isn't much better. There's a total lack of Individuality. Remember Sissy the Brazilian girl who learned to soccer in Brazil when there was no soccer development program for women and was forced to play pick up games with the boys/men. She comes over and was a revelation to woman soccer here where , ironically, are light years ahead in women soccer as compared to Brazil.   That in itself should tell you enough about training and developing players. 
    Now the USSF prohibits playing on multiple teams and segregates girls and boys. This fiat  works deleteriously to individual development.
     The lack of Individuality is due to CONTROL and STRUCTURE ,two aspects that are introduced by soccer organization and the USSF coaching school. The latter introduces licensed programmed coaches, whose scope of soccer has to do with structure, control and team organization. These aspects share nothing with Individualism that players really need. Is it no wonder, that the DA programs produce mediocrity and lack of Individuality. 
    The answer lies in creating a culture of pickup soccer which results in less control by these organizations and more growth in individuality as witnessed by Sissy and players who grew in the street soccer.

  16. Bob Ashpole replied, November 23, 2018 at 9:36 p.m.

    What I find good about the women's senior team is that (compared to the men) they have good fundamentals and good ball skills. They are good 1v1 players. That gives a coach a lot to work with.

    The last year that Abbie played, you could see how her presence on the field changed how the team played. When Abbie was playing, the team kept sending long hopeful balls forward to her as a target. Very predictable and very poor soccer. When she wasn't on the field, the team built up in good order using combination passing to approach the final third. So the team has went from a one-trick pony to playing smarter. Abbie as a target was very helpful if we were chasing the game, but not the style you want to start a match in most situations. 

    What we need on the men's side is coaches and managers that can see tactics beyond the big strong target forward of long ball soccer.

    Two more points:
    1) The WNT player pool is skilled enough to play any style of soccer.
    2) Ellis is a smart coach with smart players. They all realize that what they did in 2015 won't be good enough to win in 2019. I think they have got about all the mileage out of athleticism and fitness that can be wrung from it.

    For these reasons I am optimisitic that the WNT will find and bring a better game in 2019. They are smart and motivated to improve. Hopefully they will blaze a trail of tactical successes that the men can follow. Tab says he coordinates programs with his counterpart on the women's side. I suspect they may be the only one coordinating despite the grand USSF organization charts.

  17. frank schoon replied, November 24, 2018 at 10:52 a.m.

    Bob, what you're saying that the senior women's team as compared to the men's team have better  fundamentals,  ball skills and better 1v1 players. I can't go along with you on that observation, not that I'm impressed with the men side of which I'm not. Certainly not in an absolute sense, no way, but perhaps in a relative sense, you might have a point. This whole discussion comes down to time and space. The women's game is slower, less pressured which allows for more time and space with the ball, thus making it appear the women look a lot better. Like Cruyff states, "Give anyone a couple of meters space and they can all look like stars out there". 
    This is why it is so important for girls, especially the better ones, a la Sissy, to play with boys for they are forced to play much faster ,much quicker, think quicker and handle the ball quicker.
    Years ago , I thought the girls game would be fun to watch for it is a slower game and therefore it allows for more technical display....Boy! was I wrong. Their game is just plain meat and potatoes. The women have basicly followed the men/boys technical style training and philosophy of the game, which contributes to a very stale, programmed game in all of its facets....

  18. Bob Ashpole replied, November 24, 2018 at 9:47 p.m.

    Frank, Concacaf qualification matches, except against Canada, are not a good basis for evaluation. So what you watched most recently is not as good of an indication as the She Believes Cup last March. Against the top 10 and certainly top 5 ranked opponents, the pressure is there.

    I agree, however, that the women's game is more like men's U18 amatuer or lower game (ignoring early bloomers) between schoolboys rather than mature men. I expect the women would have a hard time against 18 year old pros.

    Not all of the players have good fundamentals. When someone is on the field is not as skilled as the others, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

    My view is that the senior WNT players are sufficiently skilled to play any style and execute any game plan. What they need to improve is their tactics. In my view the women lose the ball more through bad decisions than through failed skill. I can't say that about the MNT. 

  19. frank schoon replied, November 25, 2018 at 11:49 a.m.

    Bob ,I didn't base my criticisms on women's soccer, solely on Concacaf qualifications, as matter of fact I never saw those matches...I'm basing it on all the compilations of games that i've watched on womens soccer. As a matter of to criticize women soccer solely on having watched Concacaf qualifations would be shortsided.
    Yes ,they are sufficiently skilled considering the competion they play against as well as the level or quality soccer they play.....

  20. Bob Ashpole, December 6, 2018 at 6:42 p.m.

    My thinking is that USSF organized soccer does a poor job of developing players when looking at the entire athlete development process.

    What has changed is that USSF and affiliated organized soccer generally has exerted more control over player development and that has negative consequences, especially given how insular the USSF talent identification, selection and development programs are.

    If you don't understand my point, ask yourself what percentage of pre-teen players have access to quality coaching and sufficient training and playing opportunities to reach their full potential as players.

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