The U.S. Women’s National Team has yet to lose at the 2015 Women’s World Cup, pushing through to the quarterfinals with three wins and a draw to its credit.
But heading into Friday night’s Women’s World Cup quarterfinal match with China, all is not well on the American front. The USWNT has struggled to match their lofty expectations on the pitch and at times have looked tactically lost, nowhere more than in the midfield, where manager Jill Ellis’s roster and strategic decisions have come under fire from fans and the media.
The U.S. has been good enough to reach this point -- it did so with a 2-0 win over Colombia on Monday -- but its sluggish performances and lack of attacking heft have left plenty worried about the semifinal that looms should they prevail over China tonight.
Despite those struggles, there are obvious indications that women’s soccer is reaching new heights of popularity during this World Cup. Fox has seen record TV ratings that dwarf those the tournament earned four years ago. And even if the lackluster performances could portend bigger problems down the road, there are positive signs in the way the team is being covered. Julie Foudy, the former U.S. captain who is leading the coverage of the Women’s World Cup for espnW, sees the critiques of the USWNT, which largely rest on tactical questions and date back before the tournament started, as evidence of the game’s growth in the United States.
“I think it’s great. I love that we’re having this debate. In my day, we used to get frustrated. We’d ask, ‘Why aren’t people caring that it’s not better?’” Foudy said. Even the current players she talked to, Foudy said, have enjoyed the legitimate discussion around their performance.
Many of the Americans’ struggles, which didn't prevent them from finishing atop the tournament's toughest group, are due in part to the development of soccer elsewhere. Along with Germany, a stalwart of the women’s game for more than a decade, France and Japan, the defending champion, are now world powers. The game continues to grow in Canada and England, both of which reached the quarters. And countries that have long ignored the game even as their men flourished -- like the Netherlands and Colombia -- all qualified for the knockout stages this year.
But too many federations simply don’t care about the results of their women’s teams, and it shows.
“Look at Spain,” Foudy said. “Same coach for 27 years. One World Cup appearance and two appearances in the European Championships. They’re never demanding more. It shows the apathy.”
“Or Mexico. It hasn’t gotten any better [under the same coach] in 16 years.”
This is a complaint players in those countries have made too, but the problems, Foudy said, are indicative of the uphill climb facing FIFA as it tries to emphasize the growth of women’s soccer worldwide.
In 2014, FIFA conducted a survey to gauge the state of the women’s game around the world. It released those results and list of 10 points of emphasis this year, promising to increase funding for women’s soccer at the grassroots and professional levels and promote the growth of women in executive and administrative roles within the sport. This week, as part of a four-year initiative for women’s soccer, it promised $22 million in funding over the next four years to back new programs that will increase the number of women playing, working in, and overseeing soccer.
Still, the promised funding is a small fraction of the $2 billion FIFA brought in last year. The additional money for the women’s game totals less than the $30 million it spent on a propaganda film to promote president Sepp Blatter. Its hard to take such a small figure seriously, even if FIFA says it’s part of a larger pile of money going toward women’s soccer.
But the problems facing the game aren’t just about money alone, Foudy said. FIFA already requires national federations to put at least 15 percent of its funds toward women’s soccer, but many of those organizations know Blatter “isn’t going to lay down the hammer” if they don’t comply. There needs to be more transparency and accountability about where the money marked for the women’s version goes. And beyond that, Foudy wants more people, from the FIFA level on down, “who wake up every morning thinking about the women’s game.”
The new plans to help promote women working in the high levels of the sport -- an area in which FIFA’s survey found a particular shortcoming -- could help make that happen. But those discussions need to be a part of larger FIFA reform efforts too, and Foudy, like some of her fellow retired USWNT stars, is also hopeful the corruption scandal that led to Blatter’s planned resignation will result in an organization headed by someone who wants to make the growth of women’s soccer around the world a substantial part of their legacy.
The federations that govern the USWNT and most of its counterparts left in the tournament have figured that out, and this World Cup -- with upset victories and a plethora of newcomers -- has shown signs that others might be close. Foudy wants even more commitment.
“It’s been fun to see the second tier teams that couldn’t hang at all in our day,” she said. “But It’s been too slow. I wish the development was faster.”
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