USWNT and women's soccer in the world

As I sat down to write this article, the USWNT played the semifinal against England and moved to the final. It was the eighth semifinal appearance of the USWNT in the Women’s World Cup. Actually the current WWC is the eighth version of the WWC. The USWNT won it three times (1991, 1999 and 2015) and never finished any WWC anything less than a third place. The USWNT has been ranked either first or second in the FIFA’s women’s rankings since the FIFA World Ranking's creation in 2003 and currently is ranked first.  It won the Gold medal four times (out of six tries) in the Olympics. There is undisputable dominance of women’s soccer by the USWNT.  The only NT in soccer one can compare to the dominance of the USWNT is Brazil in men’s soccer, but then its ranking fluctuated between 1 and 18 (2012) since the inception of rankings in 1993. Its dominance may be compared to the basketball Dream Teams of the USA; the Dream Teams have a slightly stronger dominance in men’s and women’s basketball compared to the USWNT’s dominance.

Before we discuss the semifinal and its implications I have a couple of observations from the WWC 2019:

  1. Goalkeeping in the women’s game has improved by leaps and bounds.
  2. Accurate and effective heading and shots outside the penalty area have improved dramatically.
  3. Game discipline has been enhanced with players following the tactics regardless of the score.
  4. There is far less dissent and acting by women players compared to men.
  5. The officiating was not as good as the officiating in the World Cup 2018. Towards the finals it improved a lot. One should not forget the level of experience for the women’s referees if one considers the lack of parity in the women’s game among nations. On the men’s side, this does not create a problem; a referee from Slovenia or Turkey has as much experience as a German or an Argentinian referee.

Now, if you look closely at the semifinal game, you will see the pros and cons of the USWNT's performance in relation to the rest of the world. Without going to the individual details, the game can be summarized as follows: During the first 15 minutes of the game – like most other games – the USWNT had an excellent performance. After it restored the lead at the 31st minute, it tried to keep the score, which it managed to do so. After the 86th minute – when England started playing with 10 players – until the end the USWNT did everything to keep the score instead of trying to score a third goal. It put the ball to the corner area many times trying to kill time. The same was witnessed during the last minutes of the France game. I personally do not appreciate this approach and think that if the Basketball Dream Team was leading it would not try to run down the shot clock each time with a last second shot. Instead it would attack to score. One should not forget the incredible save by Alyssa Naeher in the first half, very poorly taken penalty kick by England – not a good save by Naeher – and a goal which was disallowed by inches. Overall and the games I watched (Spain and France) tell me that the USWNT has an incredible self-confidence, an outstanding team play and knows how to play knock-out games (or finals for that matter). For example, if the USWNT was trailing by 2-1 and had a penalty kick at the 84th minute, I am sure it would convert it. 

Self-confidence comes through three avenues: institutional memory, experience and the playing together as a team. The facts I have summarized above – the performance of the USWNT in the World Cups, Olympics and FIFA rankings, the fact that it's the oldest team in the tournament (average of 28.5) and the fact that all players on the roster play in the NWSL are all manifestations of the three avenues I described above. On the other hand, the English WNT lost the game because it did not properly have any of the above mentioned three avenues of self-confidence. One cannot explain why it managed to miss three penalty kicks during the tournament other than lack of self-confidence.

The USWNT’s dominance of the women’s soccer is not without a threat. In an earlier article, I have summarized the threats awaiting the USWNT in the future. Our women’s youth NTs are not doing as well as their senior counterparts. It is clear that the rest of the world is taking measures at the developmental level to narrow the gap. But still the fact that the USA has more registered players combined of Canada, Norway, Sweden, Germany, France and England and nearly as many as all of UEFA, plus the fact that women’s soccer has a longer history in this country – thanks to Title IX – will make it tougher for the others to catch up. Although quantity does not automatically lead to quality as evidenced by Croatia and Iceland in men’s soccer, quantity will help to create a soccer culture among women related to soccer which the rest of the world lacks.

Source: FIFA Women's Football Survey 2014

When we talk of “the others” we have to realize a couple of facts: 

  1. There are 56 countries in the world without a WNT (Comparison of FIFA rankings: 211 MNT on the men’s side vs. 155 teams on the women’s  side).
  2. Women’s soccer is far less proliferated – in quantity and quality – on the planet. If you look at the below maps of the world for the World Cups, you can easily see this assertion.

The women’s soccer has strong footprints in the USA, Canada, Brazil, Western Europe, Russia, Eastern Asia, Australia and New Zeeland and only in those countries and regions.

  1. There is far less parity among the women’s NTs. Today it would be impossible for a men’s NT to win or lose a game by a margin of 13-0 in the men’s World Cup.  
  1. There are still very strong biases against women’s soccer in the World. Some of those biases are cultural and some are religious. In order to find a predominantly Muslim country in the FIFA rankings you have to go to the 42nd ranking and Uzbekistan. When I worked as the Chief Soccer Officer of the Turkish FA, I tried very hard to promote women’s soccer. Actually promoting women’s soccer was my number one “hidden” agenda. After years of work and a lot of subsidy from the FA, now there are around only 4,000 women playing organized soccer. (The Turkish women’s NT is ranked 61st in the world.) On the other hand, Turkish women’s NTs in basketball and volleyball are ranked in the top 10 in the world. So there is no bias in Turkey against women involved in sports. In Turkey, soccer is a blue-collar family game and most of the female basketball and volleyball players come from white-collar families indicating also a socio-economic status positioning of the sport. To cut the long story short, in conservative and underdeveloped countries soccer is seen as a sport for men only.

With facts of “others” known, it will take decades before the “others” catch up with men’s soccer in their own countries – at least in parity – and the USWNT. Let us not forget that USWNT might lose its level of dominance over the years to come if it sits in its comfort zone.

Ahmet Guvener ( is the former Secretary General and the Chief Soccer Officer 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.

8 comments about "USWNT and women's soccer in the world".
  1. Peter Bechtold, July 6, 2019 at 10:23 a.m.

    Very intersting facts and charts. Thanks.
    One could wonder about an additional item: Why have the Scandinavian countries Norway, Sweden, Denmark with rather small populations been pioneers in WNTs at WCs ? Also, a bit more about New Zealand, Australia and Canada having been present consistently ? The latter is almost like golf. In fact,as I am typing this sentence, it occurs to me that there are many parallels between Golf and womens soccer, including the numbers for the USA, but not the men.

  2. Ahmet Guvener replied, July 6, 2019 at 12:44 p.m.

    The wealth of Scandinavian countries and the emancipation of women in those countries.

  3. Bob Ashpole, July 6, 2019 at 4:54 p.m.

    Good article, Ahmet. You are correct: culture is important.

    Thailand in particular impressed me in their 13-0 loss to the USA. Considering the mismatch, Thailand showed a lot of heart and played as well as they could. I thought their fullbacks and keeper did especially well.  

  4. Ben Myers, July 6, 2019 at 10:52 p.m.

    I am not as sanguine about the success of the USWNT after tomorrow.  European elite clubs have made great strides in advancing the quality of women's soccer in every respect.  College soccer has long fed players to the USWNT, but the level of training methods, standard of coaching, overall athleticism, tactics, and quality of opponents falls short of the European clubs and leagues.  This was evident in the play of teammates on elite European clubs against one another today.  (The French women have a synergy similar to the US, having drawn numerous players from Euro champ Lyon.) The USWNT relies a lot on counterattack play, even giving up possession against its most recent opponents so it could counter.  If they hit a brick wall defense like their own flat 5, they will be hard pressed to finish.  At this point, USWNT are simply not technical enough to hold possession for long against a pressing and ultra-fit opponent.  There are occasions when it will need to do so, maybe even tomorrow.

    Yes, there are some exceptional women's college soccer programs.  Dorrance at UNC immediately comes to mind.  USSF would be wise to bond more closely with NCAA soccer, both genders, to raise its standard.

    Sweden v England were wonderful to watch today.  The women had everything that top men's national teams have: speed, touch, awareness of the field, blistering shots, disciplined tactical play.  Yes, the women are not quite as fast and not quite as strong, but so what?  Let's hope that US v Netherlands brings the same high standard.

  5. Ron Frechette, July 8, 2019 at 6:48 a.m.

    Jill's style of play emphasizes direct play of the ball after winning it, thus the possession numbers are going to be low for her teams. There are players within the US that have the technical level of play as many of the other top 10 countries, but when the system/style of play is direct and not possession based, it’s hard for most fans of the game to see the skills.
    There was a video clip of Jill Ellis speaking about the European countries using their professional clubs development of the better 16 years olds playing with players in their mid 20’s. This will accelerate the best players to play better. This “playing up” model has been used for years in the Men’s game with younger boys being asked to play with the adults and learning lessons on the field – Street soccer is one form. US Soccer wants to change from limiting the ability to move players up to play at a level (read age) that challenges them day-in-day US college based system for the women. Thus the latest US Soccer approach is now to follow the European Club development model… Not sure which is best for the US players, but we need to change to keep up with what the rest of the Women’s soccer power nations are doing so we don’t get left behind.

  6. Ron Frechette replied, July 8, 2019 at 6:49 a.m.

    Got missed in the cut-paste...

    The mapping of income per household to player development is an interesting point. As Ahmet shows in his time in Turkey there are correlations with White-Collar households and participation in sports for women. This is almost a direct mapping to the US player development where US players in the National player pools almost always come from upper income households. This limits the player pool on players that have the drive and fight to get better every day.

  7. uffe gustafsson, July 8, 2019 at 7:17 p.m.

    Two things why I prefer watching women’s games.
    first is they play a much cleaner game, no thug soccer.
    and they are not rolling around like they just got shot,
    and 30 seconds up running like nothing happened to them. Though I did see some studs up tackles and that need to be punished more by the refs so the game is not getting like men’s soccer.

  8. uffe gustafsson, July 8, 2019 at 7:31 p.m.

    On the comments of Turkish women soccer that they are from well off families.
    that is exactly what we have in US.
    actually look at the National team.
    I like to know the players that is on the team what financial back ground they coming from, I bet they all are from well off families. I have not seen any Latino women on the team. Money matters to be able to play in a high level club and what college you play on.

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