USWNT Earns Third Star, Creating Opportunity for NWSL

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For the better part of the past year, the United States Women’s National Team and their supporters have had a single mantra: “We want three stars.” Now, the nation is gearing up for a victory lap as thousands met the USWNT in L.A. Live in Los Angeles, CA Tuesday and New York City prepares to host a victory parade for the newly-crowned world champions this Friday. The USWNT will also play a ten-match victory tour throughout the United States with matches scheduled against Costa Rica (August 16 & 19), Australia (September), and plans for two October matches.

The USWNT started the World Cup playing worse than expected, despite coming out on top of their group with wins against Nigeria and Australia and a tie with Sweden. There were many questions about Coach Jill Ellis’s tactics and personnel choices, including her choice to start Abby Wambach and her commitment to the 4-4-2 formation. Many fans and pundits worried that the USWNT would not be able to continue to grind out results against the best sides in the women’s game, especially the likes of France, Germany, and Japan.

As the knockout rounds began with a match against the Colombia side that shocked France 2-0 in the group stage, pundits continued to wonder whether the USWNT was up to the task. Even after knocking Colombia out of the tournament in a match that ended 2-0, the score belied the product on the field. A narrow 1-0 win over China PR proved to be the first real breakthrough for the team in the quarterfinals, as the women played a much more well-rounded, high-pressure variation of soccer.

The semifinal match against Germany would prove to be the the USWNT’s coming out party in the 2015 World Cup, disposing of the most potent offense in the tournament 2-0 and dominating large swaths of the match in…a 4-3-3 formation with Abby Wambach on the bench. In what can only be described as a coincidence for the ages, Jill Ellis stood firm until the United States met the world’s top competition to throw a curve ball. This analyst has his suspicions that Mrs. Ellis had the formation change in her back pocket the whole entire time, but sadly there is no proof to back up the theory. The match also proved to be a huge opportunity for some of the USWNT’s better-rested players to make an impact on the field in a huge match, laying the groundwork for the next generation to take on the mantle of the ’99ers and ’15ers.

The victory over Germany set up a final between the winner of the other semifinal between England and Japan. Japan advanced under the most unfortunate of circumstances, as England’s Laura Bassett rocketed the ball into her own net in stoppage time, setting up a rematch of the 2011 World Cup Final. In that match, Japan came from behind to claim their first World Cup in either the men’s or women’s competition in a penalty kick shootout by a score of 3-1.

The 2015 Final proved to be a wildly different affair, with Carli Lloyd tallying a brace by the fifth minute and a hat trick in the sixteenth minute from the midfield line. By that point, the USWNT was in the drivers’ seat with a 4-0 lead over the defending world champions.

Japan would answer in the 26th minute, the result of a rare defensive breakdown for the USWNT; the Americans had gone since the first match of the tournament (a 3-1 win against Australia) without conceding a goal—an amazing 567 shutout minutes. With Japan desperate to level the score, despite the long odds, the game opened up slightly in the second half.

Both teams had opportunities, but each was only able to put one away to make the final score 5-2 in favor of the USWNT. It was a moment the United States women had waited for since they hoisted the 1999 World Cup trophy and became the first country to win a second Women’s World Cup title.

It was a time when the women’s game was even more drastically underfunded and underappreciated than it is today, and the Americans could rely on their high work-rate and athleticism to crush the minnows of the women’s game, while holding their own against technically-talented Scandinavian and European sides. The American public rallied around the U.S. women in 1999, but the success of American women’s soccer in 1999 was dwarfed this past month.

After setting a new television ratings record for U.S. Soccer and the sport overall, hopefully the women’s game will see renewed investment and media attention. The UWSNT will look to assert themselves in the world of women’s soccer and defend their historic third star in the next edition of the Women’s World Cup, France 2019.

With the National Women’s Soccer League entering the final stretch before their playoffs begin, the league has a huge opportunity to capitalize off a World Cup win. Much in the same way that Major League Soccer used the 2014 World Cup to increase its public recognition and usher in a new era for the league after the USMNT escaped the so-called “Group of Death” and went on to take Belgium to extra time (they lost 2-1), the NWSL must hope that an attendance boost will follow the increase in name recognition for some of its biggest stars.

Professional women’s soccer still faces many obstacles not just in the United States, but elsewhere; attitudes toward women, societal beliefs about gender roles, and the role of women more specifically largely undercut women’s sport throughout the world. Perhaps the world’s favorite sport will put the first crack in that glass ceiling, with the likes of Colombia, Spain, and Mexico garnering attention from fans of the game in their home countries.

It is only as those attitudes change that women’s soccer—and women’s sport more generally—will start to receive the resources and public support necessary to grow beyond its current state. The rest of the world is catching up to the powerhouses in their ability to generate talent and field competitive teams; but until the public supports their female athletes with their eyes and wallets, the full potential of female athletes will remain an elusive goal.

For more information on the state of professional women’s soccer, please listen to Last Word Soccer Club’s interview with Heather Cooke of the Philippines Women’s National soccer team.