Wendi Renard, Team France's gloriously tall anchor in defense, didn't seem particularly worried about the United States women's national soccer team last week.
"We know that USA is the first nation in the world for the moment," Renard said, standing in a mixed zone at Pennsylvania's Talen Energy Field, one of the venues for the SheBelieves Cup, U.S. Soccer's invitational tournament—four teams, three matches each, over seven days in March. France had just begun its grueling week with a 2-1 win over England, decided in the final moments thanks to Renard's glorious header. "But we are working hard to change that. And we know that we are fighting against the best nations in the world. We want to prove that we are the best."
By the end of the week, Renard's side would prove themselves, if not clearly the best in the world, then at least every bit the equal or better of the United States, whom they thrashed 3-0 Tuesday night to claim the SheBelieves Cup trophy. The U.S. finished their own tournament in last place, having scored only a single goal in three matches and putting up a lot of "not since" and "never" stats along the way (not since 2000 had they lost twice in a row, never had they lost at home to France or England).
Many U.S. fans were left shocked and searching for scapegoats. Individual performances were fair game: Carli Lloyd always gets her share of scrutiny when the goal count subsides for even a moment; other players, such as Allie Long, struggled in unfamiliar positions. The new 3-4-1-2 system coach Jill Ellis put in place following last year's disappointing Olympic finish was relegated to the dustbin by many.
The United States may still well be the best team in the world, but that can no longer be the default assumption. The gap between the Americans and the next tier of teams giving chase has never been smaller, and may not even exist. Women's soccer has never been more competitive, both at the international level and within the improving club leagues. It has also never been more interconnected: Lloyd signed a short-term deal with Manchester City, Alex Morgan is playing in France at the moment, and 2015 NWSL MVP Crystal Dunn is now with Chelsea. All of which, it must be pointed out, further improves the quality of the French and English leagues, which in turn are turning out domestic stars of their own. It's a feedback loop that's growing the game, and no one who cares about the future of women's soccer would want to reverse it (not that it would be possible to, anyways). It just makes the task ahead that much more challenging for the U.S. team.
No one knows this better than Christie Rampone, the lone veteran of both the 1999 and 2015 World Cup champions, who was honored for her 311 caps prior to the U.S. match against England on March 4.
"To have a tournament like this, and to have the best teams coming here—every four years, it's changing, you can even see these teams are starting young, and rebuilding, developing," Rampone said to reporters at halftime. "The game is at a high level now. I think with the fitness part of it—the fitter the players are, the quicker the decisions are. And you can see, they're trying new things, and there's more soccer sense behind it, instead of the athletes we used to be."
Americans confirmed this firsthand at the SheBelieves Cup. After a 1-0 win over Germany on March 1, the U.S. lost to England, 1-0, and then the shellacking by the French. At the same time, all four teams, including the U.S., were already deep in experimentation mode, with eyes on bigger tournaments in years to come. The good news is that this doesn't send Ellis and the Americans out in search of a new strategy to deal with the developing competition. She has approached team-building, really, since the moment of her epic triumph, the 2015 World Cup victory.
"You've got to test your processes," Ellis said following the win over Germany. "2019 is the endpoint, so now it's [about] how good can we be with these pieces as we start to build. That's why this tournament is critical for us. We don't have the Euros. We have three of the best teams in the world coming here. And it's the only way we can really grow. I told the players, 'Even if you lose tonight, you come out of the game learning something.' And that's where the value is right now: our development."
Of the 23 American players who played in the SheBelieves Cup, only 12 had been on that 2015 World Cup roster. The newer challenges the Americans face will require some additional answers. The good news is how many of those solutions began to surface, even in defeat.
The play of Casey Short in the back, particularly against Germany but even in the France debacle, served as a prebuttal to worries that France and other attacks the U.S. will face in 2019 might be too fast for their defense.
Short is precisely the kind of player who has been best served by the emergence of the National Women's Soccer League. She fought through several serious knee injuries at the end of her collegiate career, and without regular time facing strong competition weekly may have gotten lost in a zero-sum national team roster shuffle. Instead, her form with the Chicago Red Stars in 2016 drew notice, and Short suddenly found herself in U.S. training camps. Against Germany, she earned Player of the Match, repeatedly stifling the opponent's efforts to attack on her side of the field.
After that game, Short did not frame the competitive field in terms of a shrinking gap between the Americans and everyone else. She thinks of it as anybody's game.
"I don't know that I can say who's number one right now," she said. "We're a couple of years out from the World Cup, and we have a couple of years to go until the next one. I do think it's gotten a lot better, the competition, and I don't think I can say who's the best."
Her point carried even more weight when the Germans went on to draw with France and defeat England, to finish second in the tournament overall. And it's a point of view that's shared by many on the other side, including England coach Mark Sampson. While he noted that beating the U.S., particularly on the road, would provide his team a helpful confidence boost for future matches, Sampson was adamant that the win came from talent parity, not merely a fluke.
"I would hate for people to think this is a smash-and-grab result," Sampson said after the frigid match on March 4. "We outshot America. The game's about goals, creating chances. We had 14 shots, they had 14 shots. We had three on target, they had three on target. So this is a deserved win for us, and I think that'll be reflected in how the players take it."
The corollary of Sampson's statement also holds: that the U.S. losses were deserved, and will be reflected in how they respond. In this case, the American setbacks are part of a larger arc, one that ends with the next World Cup. The difference between the old guard and the new was never clearer than when Morgan, the beloved USWNT star whose every move is trailed by shrieking to rival the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, exited the Germany game, and Lynn Williams came on and scored the game-winning goal:
This is no slight of Morgan, whose form has eluded her lately both with the national team and even in her overseas club adventure with Lyon; she still has plenty of time to find it again. But without mixing in new players, Ellis would be left with a coin toss—Morgan finds it or she doesn't. Instead, with this strategy, Ellis gets to push Morgan with Williams, the 2016 NWSL MVP. Williams' efforts were notable not only for her individual skill but for how well she moved in sync with Christen Press—precisely the kind of effective finisher and strong dropback defender that Ellis seems to crave.
"I think the core of this team is here, and it's strong, and it's always going to be strong," Williams said. "Jill has obviously brought in some new players, and [is] mixing things up, and in that sense it feels different. I haven't been in the past group before, so I can't really speak to that, but I'm loving the new group."
Perhaps the most significant find among that new group was Rose Lavelle, whom Ellis threw into the starting lineup against England, then France—her first two caps. While both resulted in losses, the 21-year-old's play rightly drew raves from her coach, who slotted the normally central Lavelle out wide. Even in the loss to England, Lavelle was the best player on the field for most of the night.
"That is a phenomenal answer I got tonight: Rose Lavelle," Ellis said after the England game. "She was fantastic. I thought she did great. It's her first cap, five minutes of nerves, and then she settled in and was one of the best players in the park. So that was fantastic. What's her best role? She's still new to us. She did very well wide tonight, and she's naturally left-footed, so we like that."
These are not the sorts of answers that can be found in friendlies against Romania. And they are answers the U.S. needs more urgently than ever, with more teams than ever capable of playing with the Americans all the time, not just in best-case scenarios for them and worst-case for the U.S. It's not an entirely new situation—Lloyd herself pointed out how difficult the World Cup victory was in 2015—but this week served as a reminder for anyone who still thinks of America as the lone superpower.
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