Poe’s Perspective: World Cup will make or break USWNT

Friends and family, it’s almost World Cup season.

I’ve been dreading those words for the last three years, and with the culmination of the She Believes Cup this week — in which the U.S. soccer team took second place — I felt a new sense of dread settle in.

If you had asked me in 2015, the story would be different, of course. Back then, I was young and naïve. The pain of the 2011 World Cup finals had faded from my memory, and I had yet to experience the suffering of the Olympics quarterfinal loss to Sweden. At the time, I felt indestructible. American soccer was the best of the best, too good to be touched — even in the World Cup finals.

(A quick note: Most times, it’s necessary to differentiate between men’s and women’s sports. That’s not the case in U.S. international soccer and will remain that way until the men’s national team actually succeeds in qualifying for … literally anything.)

Now, however, I don’t feel as sure. Four years ago, the U.S. cruised through the World Cup finals to a 5-2 finish that felt almost surreal in its dominance. But since then, it seems as if everything has fallen a bit apart.

To be fair, there were signs from the beginning. Although the team’s final match was impressive, its World Cup run was not perfect, and much of the blame for the team’s idiosyncrasies was placed on one person — head coach Jill Ellis. It followed, then, that the blame after the team’s early outing from the Olympics continued to put more pressure on Ellis. This year, the World Cup could serve as a last straw — a final chance for the coach to either prove herself or prove the necessity of finding a new leader for the team.

One of the unique qualities of any international team is the difference between an on and an off year. The U.S. soccer team has two on years — the World Cup and the Olympics — and two off years in every four-year cycle. During the on years, the entire team is plunged into a top level of celebrity, gaining headlines and broadcast spots on a daily basis. Fans and casual viewers turn out in droves for watch parties and follow the sport with regularity.

But in the off years, the team operates in virtual obscurity. It’s easy for a handful of friendly games to pass without any casual viewers noticing, and only the golazos make it onto SportsCenter highlight reels. Because of this, it’s easier for coaches and players to outlast mistakes and failures.

In many ways, this has been a blessing for U.S. soccer. After the early Olympics loss, the team faded into the background of American sports, ranked far below the top sports of football and men’s basketball in the country’s narrow attention span. So the team was able to lick its wounds and get down to the painstaking work of finding — and fixing — the fatal flaws of that loss in relative peace and quiet.

That peace and quiet has lasted for almost three years, although it has begun to fade as the team nears the World Cup. And although there are a few newcomers to the squad, the mainstays of this year’s squad — Rapinoe, Heath, Lloyd, Morgan, Press — are as familiar now as they were four years ago in Vancouver.

Yet there’s a difference in the feel of this World Cup year. Four years ago, the focus of the team and its branding was on the mission for the third star, a symbol of the third World Cup win for America. That focus shaped the entire mentality of the team and its fans, mainly because it was as focused on the past as it was on the future.

2015 was about 2011. It was about revenge and redemption. It was about winning back what had been lost in the last World Cup, proving any doubt or hate wrong. It was about overcoming a hurdle that the team hadn’t overcome since 1999, and in that sense, the team’s ferocious dedication to this mission made the result feel almost inevitable, and the team invincible.

Now, of course, we know that this team isn’t invincible. We know that even our stars can be subdued and that our head coach might not always know best. As fans, we’ve seen that this team can be beaten. That’s why, more than ever, this year will be the ultimate testing ground for them, and for Ellis in particular.

Ellis succeeded in 2015 off the sheer tenacity of her team, then floundered with one of the most highly talented rosters the U.S. has ever produced in 2016. With mere months left before the World Cup, she has yet to settle on a starting goalkeeper, and she is still toying with lineups with no clear plan of attack for the coming World Cup.

For Ellis, this year will be make or break. That’s the problem with the ebb and flow of American interest in international soccer — the team only has an audience when it’s playing for the highest stakes. If she fails again on the world stage, there’s a low likelihood that fans will be willing to risk a three-peat in Tokyo. And if the U.S. finds itself out before the semis again, Ellis should prepare to start job hunting again.

Julia Poe is a senior writing about her personal connection to sports. Her column, “Poe’s Perspective,” runs weekly on Thursdays.