Spanish players hold up Women's World Cup final hero Olga Carmona during the reception at Madrid Rio on Monday. Photo: Oscar J. Barroso/AFP7 via ZUMA Press Wire/ISI Photos
The expansion of the tournament from 24 to 32 teams should have widened the gap between the top and bottom teams, but it did just the opposite, creating a month of drama.
Just about every team could return home with something to shout about.
The upsets? The Philippines defeating co-host New Zealand, Nigeria beating the other co-host, Australia. Colombia stunning Germany, and then Morocco pipping Germany, which had beaten the Atlas Lionesses, 6-0, earlier in the tournament, for second place in their group. Jamaica's Reggae Girlz holding both France and Brazil to scoreless draws and claiming a berth in the round of 16 four years after losing all three games in France -- and conceding hat tricks in each of them.
The near-upsets? For a couple of years, it was apparent that the USA was ripe for the picking, and its decline was there for everyone to see in the final moments of the final group match against Portugal. The unthinkable almost happened, the two-time defending champions holding on for dear life, saved from elimination in the group stage by the post.
"It was by mere centimeters that we didn’t make another dream come true," said Ana Capeta after her shot in stoppage time smashed off Alyssa Naeher's left post, sparing the USA from suffering the biggest upset in the history of soccer.
Small margins. World Cups are weird events. The margins between victory and defeat are often so small.
Mere centimeters spared the USA in the group stage, but a millimeter was the difference in the next round between the Americans going on to the quarterfinals and exiting in a shootout to Sweden. Locational data captured by cameras showed Lina Hurtig's penalty kick in the seventh round had crossed the line.
"It's tough to have your World Cup end by a millimeter," said Naeher, who desperately waved at officials to try to convince them that she had saved Hurtig's shot.
World Cups are so different from American pro sports like baseball, basketball and ice hockey, where champions ware crowned after seven-game series. By the end, it's usually indisputable who is the better team.
The shootout saved Sweden against the USA and England against Nigeria when the loser was the better team. The same could've been said for France, which fell to Australia in the quarterfinals after a record 10-round shootout.
The Matildas' shootout win touched off wild celebrations across Australia and was immediately hailed as the greatest moment in the country's sporting history. It made me think back to 1999 and the USA's shootout win over China and what it meant to women's soccer here.
There might have been no "'99ers" as part of our soccer parlance if there had been VAR and Liu Ying had been ordered to retake her penalty kick because Brian Scurry took a few steps off her line before she saved Liu's shot. ("Everybody does it," the U.S. keeper famously said afterwards. "It's only cheating if you get caught.")
Deserving champions. Thank goodness, then, we have Spain.
There was no dispute about who was the deserving champion of the 2023 Women's World Cup.
La Roja overcame a year of turmoil and the loss of five players who played in the Euro 2022 quarterfinals against England but did not go to the World Cup in the aftermath of "Las 15" protests -- Sandra Panos, Maria Leon, Patricia Guijarro, Laia Aleixandri and Amaiur Sarriegi -- and it managed to put a stunning 4-0 loss to Japan in the group stage behind it to join the USA, Norway, Germany and Japan as just one of just five women's world champions.
Spain not only had the best players -- Aitana Bonmati (below) won the Golden Ball as the tournament's best player and Barcelona teammate Salma Paralluelo was named the best young player -- but it played the best as a team.
Team play was the big winner at the 2023 Women's World Cup.
Four years ago, it would have been unimaginable that a Vietnam could hold the USA to three goals or Jamaica would shut out France and Brazil or Nigeria completely stymie England. (The latter two with U.S.-based coaches, I might add.)
In an interview in The Athletic, Jill Ellis, who coached the USA to 2015 and 2019 World Cup championships and served as the head of FIFA's technical committee for the 2023 World Cup, credited "a higher level of sophistication in dealing with those special players who can suddenly change the game" and a "higher level of awareness of the game plan" and "better structure and organization in terms of the whole team" as the biggest changes in the women's game.
It made for more even play -- and more drama -- throughout much of the tournament. The downside was the 2023 Women's World Cup averaged just 2.56 goals per game, the lowest scoring rate in the tournament's history.
The absence of many of the world's top attacking players or the limited availability of others due to injuries didn't help. Alexia Putellas, the two-time Ballon d'or winner, fell into the latter category. She returned from her ACL knee injury suffered in 2022 but was a non-factor at the World Cup.
Spain managed to overcome Putellas' ineffectiveness and the loss of Guijarro to lead the World Cup in scoring with 17 goals in seven games and expected goals with an average of 2.78 per game. Spain's passing statistics were off the charts. It completed an average of 584 passes per game -- 25 more than Argentina did when it won the 2022 men's title in Qatar -- and its completion rate was a tournament high of 82 percent -- the USA's was 70.7 percent.
But the numbers don't tell the whole story. It just wasn't the quantity of the passes but the variety. The Spaniards unsettled teams down with their passing triangles, dominating midfield with Teresa Abelleira working alongside Bonmati and creating opportunities for Olga Carmona -- the left back! -- to come forward and score the winning goal in both the semifinal win over Sweden and the final against England.
European influence. Spain's championship shows just how quickly women's soccer is changing.
There was a big Barcelona influence to the Spanish team and its style of play. But FC Barcelona Femení with six Spain starters in the final wasn't professionalized until the summer of 2015, after La Roja made its first appearance in the World Cup.
But there was more to Spain than Barca. Abelleira and Carmona both play for Real Madrid. Four years ago, when Spain fell to the USA in the round of 16 at the Women's World Cup, Real Madrid Femenino had not yet played its first season.
The entry of Europe's soccer giants into the women's game is a relatively new phenomenon. And so is the emergence of the UEFA Women's Champions League as the biggest (and most lucrative) competition in women's club soccer. Its new format with group play just completed its second season. The 2023 Champions League quarterfinalists produced almost half the starters -- 21 of 44 players -- on the four semifinalists at the Women's World Cup.
But the influence of the European club game extends beyond the elite to smaller teams. In his interview with Soccer America's Mike Woitalla, Jamaica coach Lorne Donaldson credited his European-based players for setting the tone on his team and instilling the confidence in the Reggae Girlz that they could achieve something at the World Cup. Thirteen of Donaldson's Jamaicans played in Europe last season, though only star Bunny Shaw (No. 11 in photo) played for a major team, scoring 20 goals in 22 games in her first season with Manchester City.
You can go down the rosters of tournament upstarts like Colombia and Nigeria and see their European influence. Haiti, the youngest team at the World Cup with an average age of 23.2, didn't win a game (or score a goal) but Les Grenadières were competitive in every game with a squad that featured 14 players based at modest French clubs.
NWSL wake-up call. Where does this leave American soccer? The 2023 Women's World Cup was a wake-up call about the NWSL, which didn't have one starter on the four semifinalists. More generally, how could the league lose out on the tournament's many young standouts like Colombia's Linda Caicedo (at Real Madrid) or Haiti's Melchie Dumornay (now at Lyon after starting out in France at Reims)? (Well, it already happened when the NWSL lost Catarina Macario, the best American to come along in at least the last 10 years, to Lyon in 2021.)
The NWSL has been around for a decade but was a very modest operation until recently and is only now getting the investment it needs. In 2019, when the USWNT won its fourth world championship, an NWSL team's salary cap was $421,500 and the minimum salary was $16,538. Four years later, those figures are $1,375,000 and $36,400. Only now are NWSL sporting departments getting the resources they need in terms of staffing to even think of competing with big European clubs.
Thinking big. And U.S. Soccer? The WYNT program has been a mess for the last decade as its teams have struggled at world championships. Spain, Japan, France, England, even Colombia, are all producing youth players better prepared to succeed at the senior level. The USWNT is dependent on a system that has one goal in mind -- produce the most number of players for college soccer. There is nothing wrong with that -- until you examine the ridiculous costs associated with playing on teams in the ECNL.
On the men's side, the federation's national teams are benefiting from the massive investment by MLS owners into their academies to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. On the women's side, there is nothing equivalent.
If U.S. Soccer wants the USWNT to remain among the elite of women's soccer, it must find a way to circumvent the existing girls club system. This is not news.
In 2015, Ellis (with Cindy Parlow Cone and April Heinrichs at her 2023 Hall of Fame induction) had a warning for the American game: “If we sit where we are, we’ll get run over.” Well, it did, and it has.
U.S. Soccer was then exploring three initiatives, according to then-U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, that it hoped would strengthen the women's program:
• Residency program for girls;
• Development academy for girls; and
• Summer program for college women.
The second was tried and failed spectacularly. The third's value has lessened as the college game's importance has waned with the onset of top high school players turning pro.
As for the first, Gulati said in 2015 when it was proposed that the residency program "would not be tournament-focused with a specific age group, but development-focused with players in multiple age groups playing a lot of competitions."
It was an ambitious program, different from the U-17 boys residency program in Bradenton, and it never got off the ground.
U.S. Soccer must reconsider a residency program for girls. Whether it's targeted for an age group like U-17s or multiple age groups doesn't matter. But it must be a skill-based program. It might not happen overnight and it might not have an impact within four years when the USA might co-host the 2027 Women's World Cup.
But within the next decade, U.S. Soccer will have its own national training center, and it should make a girls residency program a centerpiece of its new home.