When my mom dropped me off for third grade soccer practices, she told me to play like Mia. It didn’t matter that I spent most of my time sucking on orange rinds and kicking at dandelions or that I wasn’t particularly fast or outrageously talented with the ball. I loved soccer, and that meant that I wanted to be like Mia.
I fell out of love with soccer in middle school, then fell rapidly and suddenly and irrevocably back into it during the 2012 London Olympics. Our men’s team, as usual, didn’t earn an appearance, but the U.S. women’s national team was at one of its many peaks, riding the tandem of Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan to a redemptive victory over Japan.
It doesn’t take much for most sports fans to fall in love with particular teams — a single player or game or year, or sometimes even just a jersey. All it took was the 2012 Olympics to get me stuck on women’s soccer.
I followed the sport through the birth of the National Women’s Soccer League in 2012 and screamed my way through the 2015 World Cup final. I fumed along with my favorite players as they lodged demands for equal pay rights. In short, I became that typical obnoxious superfan. I understand the ins and outs of the U.S. team’s lineups, injuries and controversies better than I understand any of my linguistics homework due this Thursday.
Which is why last summer’s loss in the quarterfinals of the Olympics, when the highly favored USWNT crashed out against Sweden, didn’t come as a shock to me. For anyone following the team, the loss was, in fact, a long time coming for a variety of reasons.
For too long, the United States Soccer Federation has centered its women’s program around a few stars who have become household names. First it was Hamm, then Wambach and Megan Rapinoe and now Morgan. These stars built the program and the fanbase that followed. But the federation’s dependence on this handful of players has also built the possibility for future disaster for U.S. soccer.
Before I continue, let me get a singular part of this discussion out of the way — U.S. women’s soccer is U.S. soccer. The women sell more tickets and jerseys, draw in more viewers and win more trophies than the men. Period. So with that being said, the success of U.S. soccer relies strongly on the success of its women’s team.
It’s an anomaly in sports, really, to have a women’s program be the frontrunner of a sport — except when you look at the Olympics, where American women dominate the podiums and the viewership in gymnastics, tennis, swimming, track and a plethora of other events. But the U.S. women’s soccer team is different in that it is making the sport a profitable industry in America.
Not yet, of course. The NWSL isn’t able to offer livable salaries to full rosters yet, and there’s been a recent shift in American players signing with European clubs during their offseasons, driving attention across the Atlantic. But between record ticket sales for the national program, a new club team opening in North Carolina and a reasonable TV deal with Lifetime, the sport is coming alive rapidly.
It’s not the NFL. But it’s something, and for women’s sports, that’s saying a lot.
But although women’s soccer has done well in regard to profit margins and salary advancements in recent years, the U.S. team is coming off its worst performance in almost a decade. After riding the hype of a record-breaking World Cup victory, the team fell to Sweden in the 2016 Rio Olympics, dashing dreams of becoming the first-ever program to win back-to-back World Cup and Olympic titles.
Some called it shocking, but most fans saw it coming from a mile away.
The coaches and managers at the USSF have often clung to veteran stalwarts long past their prime. That was evidenced throughout the World Cup every time that Wambach, who used to be one of the most powerful players in the world, trudged around the field for a compulsory 20 minutes each game.
At the time, Wambach wasn’t even participating in full practices with the rest of the team. She acknowledged her poor physical shape, which kept her from producing useful touches or opportunities and left a weak side during transitions.
Head coach Jill Ellis cited Wambach’s leadership as the reason for her continuation with the team, and that made sense during the 2015 World Cup due to its extended roster of 23 players. But for all her ability to lead, Wambach’s presence on the field was — for lack of more tactful words — useless.
I know what you’re going to say here: Didn’t the U.S. go on to win the World Cup in thrilling style, climaxing in a thorough 5-2 devastation of Japan? Yes. Yes they did, and it was awesome, and I cried for about 68 percent of it.
But Ellis followed that poor decision with another: the Olympic roster, which included a barely healthy Rapinoe who wasn’t even cleared to play full games when the Americans touched down in Rio.
In the final minutes of the match against Sweden, Ellis played Rapinoe in place of a healthy and more skilled Tobin Heath in that game against Sweden, forcing Heath to rotate into defense in place of Kelley O’Hara, an actual defender. And the Americans lost in penalty kicks. It was brutal. It was sad. But it wasn’t shocking in the slightest.
This mistake was a repetition of the same pattern from the previous year: calling up a player who isn’t physically prepared to compete due to their star status — and disguising that star status as “leadership ability.”
It’s not necessarily the fault of Ellis or the federation, though I can passionately complain about the ineptitude of both. Rather, it’s a pattern of sticking to the “old guard,” the group of players who made this team and therefore, it is assumed, will break this team if not present on the field.
As the USWNT kicks off a new year of play on Wednesday with a friendly against Germany, the program must keep the pain of that loss fresh in order to keep looking toward the future rather the past. Today’s roster is more promising than the one presented in Rio. Rapinoe isn’t listed, and a quarter of the players are young hopefuls who have been groomed well by their college or club teams.
This type of turnover is the core necessity of the team’s ability to continue to improve. It’s the ability to continue moving toward a better future for women’s soccer that will keep competition fresh and prevent our team from becoming stagnant.
Mia and Abby and Rapinoe will always be our stars. But the federation’s foremost goal should be to honor their legacies by molding new stars, both on our field and on our crest.
Julia Poe is a sophomore studying print and digital journalism. She is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, Poe’s Perspective, runs on Wednesdays.