Before the United States women’s national team left for Germany 2011, 5,852 people gathered at Red Bull Arena to say goodbye, watching as one of the tournament favorites eked past Mexico 1-0 in its final friendly before the World Cup. Yesterday, with South Korea in Harrison, N.J., to prepare for Canada 2015, almost four times that number (26,467) turned out. If only the result was as encouraging.
Against a team that’s never claimed a point in a World Cup, the U.S. drew 0-0. Two years ago, with the U.S. only one year removed from a gold medal in the London Olympics, the team beat the visiting Koreans 9-1 over a pair of summer friendlies. Perhaps it’s too much to use one result as a reference point, particularly given yesterday’s Abby Wambach-Sydney Leroux strike partnership is better suited to be a late match wrecking ball, but the result fits a larger pattern.
Over the last 12 months, the team has lost to France and Brazil, and been drawn by Brazil, France, China, Iceland and now South Korea. It’s also beaten France, one of Canada 2015’s favorites, twice in that span and has won 16 games since June 2014. In absolute terms, that’s a great run, but for a team with a history defined by long periods of invulnerability, impressive wins against weak regional competition are no longer convincing. And the lopsided results against thin teams steamrolled by the U.S.’s superior depth? It’s difficult to see that as a path to success against teams like Germany and Sweden.
And those 16 wins need to be put in the perspective of the women’s soccer world. Though the landscape has seen a number of former (China) or never (Spain, the Netherlands) contenders show vast improvement this cycle, there is still a clear pecking order. Right now, there’s a big three (Germany, France, and the U.S.), a group of second-tier dark horses (headed by Sweden) followed by a group of teams that can cause problems (including this summer’s host, Canada). Then, as our linguistic overlords might put it, dross. Utter, if improving, dross. Of the team’s 16 wins, 13 have come against that dross.
It’s become a bit of a trope to draw parallels to the men’s soccer world, but with so many fans opting back into the U.S. women after three years away, it helps put yesterday’s result in perspective. Yes, the match was a friendly, one that does nothing to change the fact that the U.S. is one of the two most talented teams in the world. And thanks to the last World Cup-Olympics cycle, people have every reason to think the U.S. can “step up” in the big games that will come over the next 14 months. But if Spain or Brazil, on the men’s side, had drawn with a Costa Rica or Algeria before the last World Cup, alarm bells would have gone off. Perhaps the Costa Ricans and Algerians would go on to prove themselves tougher than their reputations, but before the tournament, struggles against them would have also been a sign that a perceived favorite was more vulnerable than being reported.
For the U.S., those vulnerabilities have been on display ever since Jill Ellis replaced Tom Sermanni as head coach last year, a move that pushed the U.S. out of its post-Olympics honeymoon. Though the former Australia head coach had kept the team in neutral as he evaluated his player pool, the change prompted everybody to start taking form and results seriously. The product has been an almost identical win percentage under Ellis, a rate that is a notable step back from those put up under Greg Ryan and Pia Sundhage.
All of which is a long way of saying the U.S. probably isn’t as good as it was three years ago, something we’ve been harping on ever since I came to Fusion. Part of that is me being lazy, not thinking of other angles to write about (well, that’s not entirely true), but part of it is a response to the broader discussion. When, on ESPN and FOX, we get former national teamer after former national teamer touting the stature of this U.S. team as if it was four years ago, it starts a discussion. The analysis of the inconsistent U.S., a waning Wambach or of Ellis’s decisions doesn’t match what we see on the field. The U.S. has dipped, both in rankings and results. Wambach’s production has diminished, and Ellis has failed to uncover a formula that gives us reason to believe the U.S. can reclaim the World Cup.
That’s not to say it can’t. We’re coming off a World Cup four years ago where nobody picked Japan to win. And unlike France or a German team whose roster has turned over since its 2011 disappointment, the U.S. has a core of players that has been to and performed at World Cups before. All you have to do is remember Wambach’s header against Brazil or the multiple big game performances from Carli Lloyd to know the U.S.’s must-win demeanor can be drastically different from its day-to-day performance.
So where does that leave us? Unfortunately, with nothing but thin evaluations. Is the U.S. as strong as in years’ past? All the evidence says no. Should the U.S. be considered an underdog? Probably not, not only because of what this team has done in the past but because of its two wins over France in the last 12 months. There are a bunch of mixed signals, enough for everybody to build any case they want, but there’s also enough to tear down any strong argument about impending glory or approaching doom.
The U.S. is forcing us to keep our minds open, something I have a hard time doing, at times. But given the ups and downs of the last three years – from the hope of Tom Sermanni’s appointment, to the disappointment of his firing, to lack of new talent being leveraged from the NWSL, to the current uncertainty ahead of the World Cup – it can be refreshing to just let go, realize there are few truths with this team, and be surprised when the results come. If the U.S. loses early in the knockout rounds, we’ll know it’s time for the program to change course. And if it doesn’t, we’ll see a generation of players achieve their crowning glories, something nobody should have mixed feelings about.