Years from now, they will be talking about how Canada won the gold medal in women's soccer at the Tokyo Olympics.
Central to the story is how 35-year-old Englishwoman Bev Priestman led Canada to the gold less than six months after she coached the team for the first time.
The story of Canadian gold is a pandemic story.
Priestman wasn't supposed to lead Canada at the Olympics. Kenneth Heiner-Moller was Canada's head coach, but after the Olympics were moved from 2020 to 2021 due to the pandemic, he decided he could not wait until this summer to return to his native Denmark. He quit in June 2020, opening up the job for Priestman, who was the England assistant but knew the Canadian program from her work under then-women's coach John Herdman.
Priestman accepted the job in October 2020, but her first game in charge wasn't until four months later against the USA at the 2021 SheBelieves Cup in Orlando. Canada only lost, 1-0, but if you watched the game, you'd never have predicted that it would come back to knock the USA out of gold-medal contention at the Olympics.
Every player who started against the USA was at the Olympics, but Priestman was missing star Christine Sinclair, who was injured, and defensive standouts Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence, who weren't released by French clubs Lyon and Paris St. Germain.
The story of Canadian gold is a how its program overcame the pandemic shutdown and bettered its performances in 2012 and 2016 when it took bronze.
A key difference from the past is that almost all Canada's best young players, like Buchanan and Lawrence, who played together at West Virginia University, have moved to Europe. And in the last year and a half, they were still able to keep on playing while women's soccer was largely shut down in North America.
Canada had two players based in Europe in 2016 but eight in the team that beat the USA in the semifinals. Besides Buchanan and Lawrence, Stephanie Labbe, hero of the shutout wins over Brazil and Sweden, left the North Carolina Courage for Rosengard in Sweden, former University of Cincinnati defender Vanessa Gilles, who was outstanding at center back, has played the last three seasons for French club Bordeaux, and former UCLA star Jessie Fleming, whose penalty kick was the difference in the semifinal against the USA, plays for English champion Chelsea. Deanne Rose, who scored the tying penalty kick in the gold-medal game shootout, is headed to Reading in England after finishing up at the University of Florida.
Indeed, one of the biggest stories in women's soccer is the increasing concentration of talent in Europe and how it impacted the Olympic tournament.
Just what went so wrong with the USA remains a mystery. Many reasons for the poor tournament have been mentioned: inexperienced coach, aging team, bad chemistry, off-field distractions, excessive lineup changes, tactical errors, inadequate preparations. The list goes on and on.
They have all been focused on the WNT and what it did wrong, on and off the field. But a simpler explanation might be at work. The USA's opponents are getting better. And during the pandemic they surpassed it.
One trend that began before Covid-19 shut down the soccer world in March 2020 was the concentration of women's soccer talent at European top clubs, about a dozen of Europe's wealthiest soccer clubs. Those clubs were heavily represented on the Tokyo Olympic medal contenders.
Sweden, which beat the USA, 3-0, featured players from Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Juventus, the 2021 champions of England, Germany and Italy. Australia once had 14 players in the NWSL. Now, just one Australian player is in the NWSL as the Matildas have moved en masse to Europe. Even the USA had players who spent part of last season at Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham in the Women's Super League and Lyon in D1 Arkema.
Even with crowds hovering around 2,000-3,000 a game in many markets in 2021, NWSL is easily the best fan-supported women's league in the world. Top to bottom, the NWSL remains the most competitive league. (The level of Europe's best women's leagues drops off considerably below the top three or four teams.) But players on these top European clubs also have the opportunity to play in the UEFA Women's Champions League. And in the last 18 months, European-based players have been able to play a lot more soccer.
The Frauen-Bundesliga finished its 2019-20 season thanks to the financial support of Germany's powerhouse men's clubs. Sweden's Damallsvenskan, which plays a spring-fall season, played a full 22 games in 2020 and is part-way through its 2021 season. UEFA squeezed in a final eight -- like the men's version -- to complete its 2019-20 Champions League season. And completed a 2020-21 campaign, won by Barcelona over Chelsea in the final.
All these European countries played full 2020-21 league seasons, at least in their top tiers. By contrast, the NWSL was forced to shut down in the first week of preseason and never played its 2020 league season. (It introduced a Challenge Cup and Fall Series though some national team players opted out, as was the right of all players.)
Buchanan and Lawrence went 15 months between games with Canada, but they still managed to play 30 and 29 games for Lyon and PSG, which included two Champions League runs.
The amount of games Sweden's players in its 3-0 win over the USA had played was significantly higher than the amount of games the U.S. players strictly based in the NWSL had played: an average of 40.3 games vs. 23.7 -- for club and country -- from June 2020 to June 2021. And that's even with the U.S. national team playing an extra four friendlies outside FIFA windows.
NWSL is back in full swing. It will enjoy its longest season in history, extending from preseason in February to the playoffs in November. And it will welcome two very ambitious teams in Angel City FC and San Diego in 2022. But while we examine what's next for the WNT, it needs to be put in the context of what's next for women's soccer globally.
Big picture: Players based in Europe will be getting more opportunities to play more big games. UEFA is expanding the Women's Champions League this fall to make more clubs from the top women's leagues eligible for the competition and it is introducing a group stage. The bottom line: more big games for players, more money for clubs to pay players.
When UEFA postponed Euro 2020 to June-July 2021, Women's Euro 2021 in England became Women's Euro 2022 (why it's Women's Euro 2022 and the just-completed Euros weren't Euro 2021 or Men's Euro 2021 is a mystery). Ahead of the 2023 Women's World Cup, all of Europe's top women's national teams will gather next summer for Euro 2022. And 2023 Women's World Cup qualifying? The first qualifiers in Europe are in just five weeks.
All in all, a busy, busy year coming up for top women's players based in Europe. And a big challenge for the U.S. national team program for the first time needing to play catch-up.