Updated: Jun 29, 2020
On an international level, the United States Women’s National team has been the dominating force since the inception of the first FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991 (although there were tournaments and iterations of Women’s tournaments before). They have four titles, one runner-up, and three third place finishes in the eight tournaments that have been played so far. This is an incredible record, and credit to the United States for producing some of the best Women’s players in the world thus far. However, I believe that the USWNT dominance will ebb and eventually fade away, and we will explore the facts that made me arrive at this conclusion.
History repeats itself
People who are much wiser than I have said “in order to predict the future you must understand the past”. In 1992 the USA Basketball smashed all competition in the Olympic Games held in Barcelona. The closest game was the final versus Croatia, in which the USA won 117-85 (32 point difference). The dominance of the United States in this competition is even greater than the USWNT with 15 gold medals in 19 competitions. This performance by the “Dream Team” captivated the World’s imagination with the sport of Basketball and children around the world began playing, in particular in the host nation of Spain.
Fast forward to the latest two iterations of the games, and Spain has risen their level of play significantly. The United States defeated Spain in the 2012 Gold Medal game by just 7 points, and in the 2016 games by just 6 points. Alongside this the point difference between the USA and their competition decreased from the 1992 tournament. The dominance of the USA has remained in this sport, but the rest of the world has raised their game. I believe that is exactly what is going to happen in Women’s soccer as well, especially given that the dominance of the USWNT is not to level of the Men’s basketball.
The mastery of any craft comes down to a simple formula. Progressively increase your ability through training over large amounts of time. Players that train and play more hours over more years have a much higher probability of mastery than players who train less hours. This is foundation to development in any aspect of life, not just soccer.
In the United States a player does not begin playing and training at a professional level until they are 21-22 years old. In the NWSL currently that are four players that are twenty-one years old or younger (three 21-year olds, and one 20-year-old) in the entire league (information on the OL Reign players was not available). None of these players have played a professional match yet, as they were all drafted in January of 2020. All players in the USA from 18-21/22 play in the NCAA/NAIA system, which consists of 20-28 (including spring matches) games in an entire year with the spring training time being restricted by the NCAA/NAIA . This is essentially a U-23 league and all players are amateurs. I explore the disadvantages of player development in the college soccer system further in a separate blog: https://www.fam2021.com/post/usa-soccer-pathway
Meanwhile, in Spain there were twenty-three players U-21, between the four Madrid teams competing in the first division this past year. In the entire first division there were EIGHTY-SEVEN players that were twenty-one and under. These players are competing in 32-35 league matches a year, during a 9-10 month calendar, while training full-time. These eighty-seven players are playing with and against fully professional adult women. Quite a few of these players are 16-19 years old as well, so while USA athletes are playing High School/DA/ECNL, young Spanish players are already professionals (while continuing their studies in most cases).
Many 16-21 year olds are not ready to compete in the first division, and here again the European (and we’re focusing mostly on Spain here) system provides a real solution. There are five categories in the Senior Women’s pyramid in Spain, and the second division is largely (although not entirely) an elite U-23 league). Atletico Madrid B and Madrid CFF B both compete in the Second Division (Reto Iberdrola) and have sixteen and twelve players under 21 years old on their rosters, respectively. Whereas Women players in the USA who are not moved into the NWSL directly out of college have to compete in summer leagues that are 2-3 month seasons of 10-15 matches.
In Europe therefore, players are developing within a system that gives them more time on the training ground and more match play. This will lead to players who have a higher level of mastery in the next generations.
The Money game
While player development is absolutely crucial to raising the collective level of play of any nation, this development has to be backed by funding. Clubs raise funds through two main channels; Ticket sales and sponsorships. These channels are closely related, as the higher attendance a team has, the more attractive they are to potential sponsors. Higher attendance equals higher sponsorship equals more money for clubs to invest in player development and salaries.
Let’s look at attendance first, as it is the absolute life-blood of a football club. The current record for an NWSL match is 25,215 set by the Portland Thorns. (https://equalizersoccer.com/2019/08/12/portland-set-a-new-nwsl-attendance-record-but-this-isnt-just-their-moment/).
The average attendance for the entire league in 2019 was 7,386 in 2019 – a 23% increase of 2018.
Average attendance by team:
Portland Thorns: 20,098
NC Courage: 5,875
Seattle Reign FC: 5,213
Sky Blue FC: 3,338
In terms of average attendance, the NWSL currently has Liga Iberdrola beaten quite handily (https://as.com/futbol/2020/04/06/femenino/1586185282_679580.html) but in terms of record attendance the Spanish clubs blow the NWSL (and indeed the rest of the world) out of the water.
The world record for a Women’s club match is held by Atletico Madrid at 60,739 for a league match against FC Barcelona in March of 2019. This smashed the previous record of 48,121 set by Athletic Bilbao for their Copa del Rey match against Atletico Madrid.
Several Spanish clubs are able to boast attendance records similar or greater to that of the Portland Thorns, with Athletic Club playing in front of a large crowd of 32,068 last year in a league match against FC Barcelona
RCD Espanyol making their record last year at 20,615. https://www.elperiodico.com/es/deportes/20190422/espanyol-atletico-7418392
The Spanish Women’s teams need to create higher regular attendance numbers, and I believe it is possible especially considering they are directly attached to clubs with massive fan bases already.
Clubs (with Women’s teams) number of Socio (members)
-FC Barcelona: 163,459 socios
-Athletic Bilbao: 43,555 socios
-Real Betis: 50,373 socios
-Atlético Madrid: over 120,000 socios
-Real Madrid: 92,000 socios
-Sevilla FC: 41,872 socios
Collective Bargaining agreement
Something little talked about is the collective bargaining agreements. Currently the minimum NWSL salary is $17,000 while the minimum salary in the Liga Iberdrola is €14,000. While these are low salaries, remember they are the minimums, not the average. Also, adjusting for cost of living the Spanish salary is not too bad.
Summary of cost of living in Spain
· Family of four estimated monthly costs: €3,054
· Single person estimated monthly costs: €1,573
· Spain is the 3rd cheapest country in Western Europe (16 out of 18)
Girls play against boys
The lowest age category in Spain for an all-girls league at the moment is Infantil which is rough U-13/U-14. This is something I witnessed first-hand last season when my U-12 team with CD Canillas played against Madrid Club de Futbol Femenino’s U-12’s. These girls were good players and I was a huge fan of their individual and collective play. Especially the feisty red-head winger that was right in front of our bench. I think the girls will benefit playing against the boys up until the Infantil category, because boys are psychologically more likely to be aggressive in play (in sport and in general), and I think that the girls coming through this system will adapt higher levels of aggressiveness (testing the boundaries safe and fair play). At the Infantil level physiological differences (the boys begin producing higher levels of testosterone) means that the separation is sensible.
*see me in the black hat at the bottom of the screen in the beginning of the video.