How Carli Lloyd, Lindsey Horan, Christen Press and Jill Ellis rate the rise of European women's soccer -- and what it means for the USA

The USA is off on another "Victory Tour" after claiming its fourth Women's World Cup crown last month with arguably the finest performance the women's game has witnessed, but the most compelling story in France this summer wasn't the Americans' mastery over everyone else.

Those inside the game have been closely watching things evolve in Europe for the past two decades, and the eighth WWC provided a nice glimpse at the future. Seven of the eight quarterfinalists -- all but the United States -- were European, some of them relative newbies on the game's greatest stage. Consider it a preview of what's ahead.

Money is pouring into the European women's game, from federations seeing greater value in women's play, and especially at the club level as men's powerhouses increasingly field women's teams and lure top talent from around the world. The level of play has substantially advanced in the past few cycles -- especially outside of Scandinavia and Germany, for decades the continent's giants -- and it's not about to slow down.

The accepted wisdom in these parts, cemented with Germany's World Cup dominance in 2003 and 2007, went something like this: When Europe gets serious about the women's game, the USA will find it excruciatingly challenging to remain atop the throne. The Europeans, owing to an overarching culture that the U.S. cannot replicate, will be superior technically and tactically, possess a natural understanding of the game's deepest nuances that pass Americans by, and rise to the stature the European men's game has long enjoyed.

How do the Americans keep up? That's simple, says the Americans' most experienced player.

“Continue to raise the bar,” Carli Lloyd said after scoring her 114th international goal in the U.S.'s 3-0 triumph over Ireland at the Rose Bowl in last Saturday night's “Victory Tour” opener. “These teams are obviously getting a lot better, as we saw from the World Cup. I think that over the years, we kind of had this intimidation factor, where we stepped out on the field and we had already halfway won the game.

“Now you're seeing teams come out not as fearful of us anymore. They're brave, they're taking it to us. We've seen that over the years, and we have to continue to keep raising that bar, continue getting better. Every individual player has to elevate their game.”

Doing so is the thorny part, and it must begin, as in Europe, at the start.

“Part of it is making sure, if you look at it from a just a big-picture perspective, you've got to make sure what's your pipeline, and that's our youth ...,” head coach Jill Ellis, who will step down after the tour, said during her postmatch media availability. “[We must make] sure we continue to have the development, [that we build] the IQ of players.

“It's not just now technical, it's how they think the game. It's how they play the game. That's critical, because you saw in that last World Cup, there's so much tactical flexibility now. Our players are really challenged -- everybody should be challenged -- in terms of just the mental capacity of the game: thinking the game, reading the game.”

Wealthy European men's powerhouse clubs, such as Manchester City, are increasingly fielding women's teams. Manchester City, which had nine players, including Nikita Parris (above), in England's 2019 World Cup squad, Lyon, Atletico Madrid and the North Carolina Courage will compete in the International Champions Cup Aug. 15 & 18 in Cary, North Carolina. Parris recently transferred to Lyon.

Coaches want structure in the game, Ellis said, “because that's how we are as coaches. But I also think we can't be too structured. We've got to make sure that we continue to let players think and solve the game and not just feed them the answers. Create challenging situations for them to problem-solve.”

The Europeans always have been sharper in these areas than the USA, which became a dominant force by overcoming tactical and technical disadvantages with a game built on collective effort and athleticism augmented by the individual skills of some of the game's most revered players. The Yanks always have outfought foes, outhustled foes, outbelieved foes. There's often been an air of invincibility surrounding them.

It started cracking after the 1999 World Cup triumph. The Women's United Soccer Association, the first of three top-tier women's leagues in the USA, was launched in 2001 and drew the world's best players. Germany credited its 2003 World Cup triumph in part on their players' WUSA experience, and particularly in getting a glimpse behind the curtain. The Germans discovered the U.S. players weren't superwomen, that they were like everyone else.

The Americans' ability to remain at or near the top in the nearly two decades that have passed is testament to the country's depth of talent, increasing sophistication to go with the more “American” traits, and the decisions by many top players to toil, at least for awhile, in Europe.

European leagues have drawn Americans all along, but the rise of the English, French and Spanish leagues to rival the German Frauenbundesliga and Swedish Damallsvenskan has provided more and better opportunity. The National Women's Soccer League, like the WUSA and its successor Women's Professional Soccer, offers tighter competition than is found in Europe -- any team can beat any team on any day whether home or away -- but elite players can make far more money playing in Germany, France or England.

Real Madrid's plan to field a women's team starting next year ought to accelerate things. If the world's best players competing for Europe's biggest clubs, does Europe become the desired destination for America's best?

“There's the potential. Yeah, there is,” said Lloyd, one of 14 World Cup winners with experience at a European club. “I think our league is one of the best in the world, no question about that, but I think that there's players that are curious. There's players that want to go experience that lifestyle and get on the calendar the rest of the world is on. We may see that, and we'll see what happens.”

The NWSL, Ellis says, “is critical” for the U.S.'s continued success, but the league, in its seventh season, needs to “continue to grow, continue to evolve.”

Europe will always have its charms, and the benefits of playing there are many. Living in a culture in which soccer is embedded in the daily life -- and in the greater conversation -- provides unique perspectives. The game is different, and embracing the details of the differences makes for better players.

“When I was playing over there, everything was so technical and tactical,” said U.S. midfielder Lindsey Horan, who played three and a half years at Paris-Saint Germain right out of high school. “I think the players just grew up in a culture where it was all soccer, or football, and they were just so technically sound and so intelligent in the game.

“They grew up watching it, everyone loves watching it, and for Americans, it wasn't always a thing. I knew a lot of my friends [who played soccer] that didn't watch soccer, and I just chose that that was my No. 1 thing, watching it. That was such a cultural thing [in Europe], that's everything they did, and soccer's such a huge thing in Europe.”

French club Lyon, whose squad of international stars includes French World Cup striker Amandine, has by winning the last four UEFA Women's Champions League titles earned bragging as the greatest women's club in the world.

The growth of the European women's game has been fueled by girls watching and playing as much soccer as the boys. And it's happening everywhere. England and France began emerging a decade ago and have become contenders. The Netherlands popped through with a European Championship triumph two years ago, which they followed with an unbeaten run into the World Cup title game. Spain, kept from the quarterfinals by the Yanks, caught everyone's attention in France. So did Italy -- once just a notch below the Germans, Swedes and Norwegians -- and others are coming in their wakes: Euro 2017 semifinalist Austria, Switzerland and Scotland. Maybe Belgium, too.

FIFA's certainly paying the women greater attention under president Gianni Infantino, who was on hand at the Rose Bowl. There will be 32 teams, eight more than in France, at the next Women's World Cup.

Ellis said she was “ecstatic that they've increased the number of participants.”

“I think that's a big step,” she said during her pregame news conference Friday. “I think with that you sometimes will get lopsided scores in terms of teams growing, but I think we can just see the velocity at which the women's game has grown over the last four years. ... I think it was a real eye-opener [for FIFA during the World Cup] to see how marketable, how fan-friendly, how exciting the women's game is, in terms of being able to promote it and gain sponsorships.

“I think the World Cup did exactly what I hoping for it to do, in terms of selling our sport to more people, reaching more people. I think FIFA's going to take note of that.”

The better the world gets, the better it is for the Americans.

“From my very first year on this team, I've kind of been told that world's catching up,” said forward Christen Press, who has had two stints in Sweden. “Our whole perspective as a team is that's amazing. We want the team to grow, we want the level to grow, we want more federations to be pouring money into the players, because the excellence is there, the potential is there. We need these resources, and the more resources that other countries give to their players, the more that we'll have.

“It's like a beautiful, competitive battle to stay on top, and I think [Europe's] domestic leagues are absolutely changing the dynamic now. Now we have the opportunity to grow within our leagues, and I think it's been just fantastic to see the growth, especially in, like, the English league, where they're so tied to the men's clubs and so they're going to have those professional standards. Now it's coming in Spain, and you can just see the direct correlation between the success of those programs.”

As Europe evolves, so must the U.S. and its players.

“I think long gone are the days where you just solely rely on athleticism,” said Lloyd, who had a stint at Manchester City in 2017. “I think that you need to be technical. It's all about the repetition, it's all about cleaning up your technical ability and being efficient. These teams know how to do that. If they continue to get themselves fit and 90-minutes game fit, it's going to be a bit scarier for us.

“We just have to keep plugging on as a nation and keep finding the talent and breeding that talent and continuing to have that American mentality and spirit.”

Photos: Fotoarena/Imago/Icon Sportswire and Relevent Sports Group

9 comments about "How Carli Lloyd, Lindsey Horan, Christen Press and Jill Ellis rate the rise of European women's soccer -- and what it means for the USA".
  1. Kent James, August 6, 2019 at 7:46 p.m.

    This is an excellent article and raises a number of important points.  First, the development of the European clubs is what made the US victory especially impressive.  They played difficult opponents in almost every game.  Second, it is pretty much impossible for the US to dominate the sport forever; there are too many variables.  But it is realistic for the US to remain one of the dominant powers (like Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Spain on the men's side).  Third, Lindsey Horan's comments about the soccer culture are the key to the future.  If we can create that here, the US can remain a power (and while we're not there yet, the soccer culture here is growing).  If we can't, then even if the US league is one of the best now, the lure of dollars (and playing with and against the best players in the world) will draw even the American women to Europe, and the US league will become a feeder league.  In order to prevent that, and to develop competitive teams (for both the men and the women), we need to build our soccer culture.  When kids get home from school and play soccer in the street (or their back yards), trying to emulate the heroes they watch on TV, we'll know we're there.  

  2. uffe gustafsson, August 6, 2019 at 8:26 p.m.

    One comment on the US women’s league.
    only some players make a good living but the majority of the players don’t make enough to make a living, that need to change but only if they get butts in the seats and corporate sponsors. We seen an up tick in people coming to the game and see the National players on the teams, that’s because of the WC.
    we as in US soccer fans now have a great opportunity to apply for the WC 2023 and continue this excitement of women’s soccer. Think fifa would be extactic to have USA to take on the 2023 WC and promote it around the world, this country will fill every stadium at every game. As we saw in France, it was US fans that filled many of the stadiums. And we now have soccer specific stadium to play in. Win win for all.

  3. Ben Myers replied, August 6, 2019 at 11:25 p.m.

    Soccer specific stadia are nice for week-in week-out league play, but for a Women's World Cup 2023 give me a lot of publicity and the more traditional giant NFL venues, which can be filled with fans.  The mistakes made by FIFA and the French association were too little publicity and venues with relatively low seating capacity.  If the USSF reverses there errors, the 2023 World Cup will be a smashing success with large stadia filled (or close enough) to capacity, and oodles of money to the delight of USSF, FIFA and all participants. 

  4. R2 Dad, August 6, 2019 at 9:08 p.m.

    I don't think the Euro wave will inevitably overtake the the NWSL, but US teams have less funding and unless something changes UEFA will skin CONCACAF--that is a certainty. The question becomes, What Kind Of Change Is NWSL/USSF Comfortable With? I don't know Amanda Duffy, but her background would suggest she could be the right person to implement a tighter association with the W League. With their schedule the polar opposite of NWSL, I'd think an NWSL/W League tie-up could reap benefits and turn 2 weak leagues into a desireable counter to UEFA riches and CL fame. Time IS running out, though. Once UEFA peels away the top players, there will be little left to squabble over.

  5. Peter Bechtold, August 6, 2019 at 9:47 p.m.

    From a quality perspective, we have to understand that our sports pyramid is different from the rest of the world.(Canada is partly connected, as was shown in that 20 of their 23 WC players had played college ball in the US.) The US pyramid in all professional team sports has franchises on top(with owners), followed by college and high school leagues. In fact,due to Title IX there are now more womens college teams than mens' because many of the latter have been discontinued due to enforcing Title IX: Meaning that college football eats up so many scholarships that a balance for women can be created only by dropping significant numbers of mens sports.(Right here this meant baseball, wrestling, soccer inter al. was dropped in the Big Sky Conference,while women have soccer, softball,volley ball,womens golf but not mens'. This varies from conference to conference, but has become a huge structural factor.)
    This matters because the great majority of HS and College coaches are not nearly as qualified as their club-based counterparts in Europe and beyond.
    Now, having coached at multiple levels from youth to college here,to top league overseas, I realize that we have youth soccer below HS from which eventual stars have grown, but again the coaching and overall structure favors participation over narrower excellence. My youth coaches in West Germany were ex-senior players, and there were no "soccer moms" to cushion tough developments on the field.
    In addition, the women on the USWNT are almost totally from suburban backgrounds and could slide into the college scene, whereas the club structures overseas rely on a much broader socio-economic background.
    The only way that the US can remain competitive at the top is a major change in coaching at a minimum. And the "culture" as mentioned by one NT player above who was not interested in watching soccer while playing it before going overseas. Enough.

  6. Bob Ashpole, August 7, 2019 at 2:09 a.m.

    Lots of interesting comments.

    Personally I don't believe in the conventional "culture" wisdom. We don't have to have all 330 million of immersed in soccer. We have 60 million Hispanics and Latinos. That is more population that many of the traditional soccer power nations. Population is not the problem.

    I do agree that coaching is the problem, but more specifically "overcoaching". We need less structure and more athletes actually playing sports more frequently. There is no substitute for so-called "street soccer". We also need to teach "positional play", essentially the Cruyff Dutch Style Principles are one way of expressing this concept. Like chess and checkers, positional play controls the game by the positions of the "players" on the board, positions that both attack and defend at the same time.

    There is no substitute for parents that promote their childrens' mental, social, and physical development during early childhood. Unfortunately, physical education and development, athletics, as well as creative development (fine arts) is no longer a priority in many public schools. There is no substitute for those either.

    We are dealing with a society that doesn't prioritize the education and development of the public at large. We are dealing with a society whose traditional social institutions are declining.

    That doesn't mean that we are doomed. It simply means that great athletes are going to rarer than in past generations. Society today is generally lazy and feels entitled. Unfortunately our pay-to-play system is aimed at families with lots of money instead of poorer families more hungry for success.

    That leads to two handicaps we have in the US. First our large geographic size works against us, and second USSF affiliated soccer is a sport for the affluent.

    In Europe the national teams have many other national teams conveniently located nearby. Their national teams may play in a league of national teams. USSF compensates for our relative lack of convient competition by funding the NWSL. As good as the NWSL is, it cannot hope to be as good as a league of European national teams. Our players are spread out among the clubs to make for better competion while in Europe the FAs can concentrate their national players on one club team and still find adequate competition against other national teams. Those European teams then gain the advantage of being in effect club teams.

    Bottom line: in my view USSF is dropping the ball.  

  7. Ron Frechette, August 7, 2019 at 7:30 a.m.

    Great thoughts being spoken.
    Money - If the US is going to find a way to raise the level of the NWSL, they need the revenue to do so. If the Women of the US support the NWSL using their pocketbooks and eyes (TV Revenue is based on viewership) then there will be the ability to make the women's professional league here in the US to have be sustainable and provide a living wage to all the players on the rosters. European club women’s teams also have this problem, and if it were not for the money brought in by the Men's side of the club there would not be many women's teams. Women are over 50% of the world's population and if they start to want to support women’s sports things will improve quickly for US based professional teams.
    Coaching – The US pay-to-play model means that when a coach is “tough” on a player (challenging them, making them overcome their faults, practicing to improve not just be congratulated, etc…) the players mom and dad pull their daughter (or son) to move to another club/team and this destroys the bases of coaching to improve the player. The pay-to-play has also the side effect of well coached teams being mostly populated with middle to upper income families – and the attitudes of entitlement. Who of the good to better coaches want to be in this environment where they are selling their team to the best players on other teams (example: we win over 75% of the time!) vs doing the real work of improving players. How many good coaches that have soccer/football in their veins does not pack up and go to a country that has a soccer culture vs staying here in the US to coach to the parents pocketbooks…
    USWNT as Jill explain tied to the feeder systems. We in the US don’t typically play players up in age groups to make them uncomfortable and force the player into solving difficult problems where their athleticism can’t overcome the problem. European club do this daily in bringing up the best of the younger players to play with older and smarter/better soccer knowledgeable players. Many of the USWNT players on this WWC winning roster and those of the past winners found ways to play up, against boys, leave the comforts of home to be challenged daily in Europe based clubs. The US player has the drive and passion but adults in the USSF and clubs (profit driven decisions) are preventing them from reaching the next level.

  8. R2 Dad replied, August 7, 2019 at 1:08 p.m.

    "Playing Up" within the context of US youth soccer is different from how I've seen Hispanics do it. The Hispanics typically have the young boy playing on his father's team, so there are players looking out for the young/little guy. This precludes overly aggressive play from opponents, since it's usually a solo ref just managing the mayhem.
    For our non-hispanics, playing up involves playing on an older team, a team that doesn't know/care much about this new/young/small player. You might have 3 officials but a U15 playing U19 is a killing field. There is always some older guy who is going to take out/injure the younger guy because he can. On top of that, the quality of play when playing up isn't necessarily more technical. From what I've seen, it's primarily more physical. Without the direct path to professionals that you see on professional clubs in Europe and South America, a large minority of 16-18 YO boys drop out because they either get injured, or don't want to get injured (more).

  9. frank schoon, August 7, 2019 at 1:25 p.m.

    There is a lot here to soak up  for it is so scattered ,although I find the posts more interesting and direct. I quote Ellis here whom, I think, never says anything insightful instead it's always been  mundane, bordering on generalities. <" coaches want structure, because that's how we are as coaches. But I also think we can't be too structured">WOW!!!

    <" We've got to make sure that we continue to let players think and solve the game and not just feed them the answers. Create challenging situations for them to solve."> In other words, NO over-coaching, which seems to be  an on-going criticism for the past  40-50 years...Nothing new there...The best stage for players to learn on their own is to play pickup soccer, meaning in a  NO coaching environment, which is not what our kids are doing in their development.

    Loyd states,<" I think long gone are the days where you just solely rely on athleticism"> I disagree those days are still here and it is still a major part of our successful soccer. The statement by Horan describing how they train and think in Europe,"Everything is so technical and tactical", points out indirectly that our way of training girls is less technical and tactical and more physical.
    And if you add the quote, by Horan who stated everyone loves watching soccer as part of the culture and compared to her American soccer playing friends who didn't care too watch soccer games  is further prove that we tend to play a more physical athletic game that requires less brains.....
    In sum the women's  WC'19 was for America to lose and certainly wasn't due to  great insightful coaching....We had the horses and we won, it's that simple.....


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