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Column: Why the USWNT’s World Cup loss means progress

SPORTS-SOC-US-WOMEN-KILGORE-ANDONOVSKI-LA
Vlatko Andonovski, Head Coach of USA, talks to Crystal Dunn before the extra time during the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Round of 16 match between Sweden and USA at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium on Aug. 6, 2023, in Melbourne / Naarm, Australia. (Quinn Rooney/Getty Images/TNS)

It was 1991 in Guangdong, China, and 12 teams had something to prove.

The United States Women’s National Team was one of the frontrunners for the first-ever FIFA Women’s World Cup.  They weren't close to having the same resources as the men's team — even wearing their hand-me-down jerseys — but the team still attacked the pitch with a fire and tact that led them to take first place. And while there was contention and rivalry between their opponents, they all had a common goal: to prove that women’s soccer was big enough to succeed and to be taken seriously at the international level.

But it’s 2023 now. And women’s sports have come a long way since then. The FIFA Women’s World Cup has expanded to 32 teams and has amassed millions of fans and millions of dollars in revenue. Since the start of the tournament, numerous women’s national teams have advocated for resources that have immensely helped women’s soccer develop across the globe, creating a legacy for future players and teams to look towards.

For a long time though, only a few teams dominated international tournaments with little variety in World Cup winners, one of these teams being the United States. 

Out of the last eight Women’s World Cups, the USWNT has won four. They've also amassed four Olympic gold medals. It’s pretty much guaranteed that their roster will be stacked with the best players in the world. And the players have fought many battles – mentally, on the field and even in court – to get to that point. As a result, the USWNT is often favored to win every major tournament they participate in. 

But their dynasty fell short in Australia and New Zealand. For the first time ever, the United States lost in the round of 16. After this tough loss to Sweden that ended in penalty kicks, many fans and commentators alike voiced their frustration and disappointment with the USWNT. 

And I was one of them. I had my moments watching the games and knowing that the USWNT was not living up to their potential. There was so much hype around the team for this World Cup as they were going for a three-peat. To lose so early was dumbfounding and even embarrassing. 

Whether fans of the USWNT were ripping Megan Rapinoe apart or gracefully dealing with the loss, there was one common point of agreement: head coach Vlatko Andonovski was ruining the team’s reputation.

Having taken over in October 2019, Andonovski succeeded soccer legend Jill Ellis, who coached the USWNT to two consecutive World Cup victories. The newly appointed coach had some big shoes to fill, as fans counted on him to keep the team’s momentum going. 

But after many unpopular coaching decisions, including questionable starting lineups, poorly timed substitutions and weak game plans, Andonovski let everyone down. It’s evident in the stats that the United States was outperformed, reflecting that the team possessed the ball for 44 percent of the game in two of their matches, compared to their usual domination. In their game against the Netherlands, the team had 291 completed passes to the Dutch’s 400. Andonovski resigned as head coach on Aug. 16.

The USWNT’s failure to secure another title can easily be written off as a massive coaching failure and a wavering team dynamic, but we’re missing an important variable here.

We are not giving the United States’ opponents, and all of the other teams in the tournament, enough credit.

As a massive soccer fan, it’s really tough to see the team and players I admire lose. But I can’t help but view the rest of the tournament as a testament to the growth of women’s sports globally. It’s a really inspiring thing to see teams qualify for the first time, score a World Cup goal for the first time and continuously break records that had never seemed possible before. For a while, the final rounds of the World Cup seemed attainable for only a few teams that were continuously the best of the best. Now, we just have more teams who are that good. There simply isn’t enough room for all of the high-level talent we’re seeing and great teams are going to lose.

If we look at the amount of resources that the United States has had compared to other countries and conferences, the team holds a massive advantage. And this is not to discredit the hard work that the USWNT had accomplished, because they, too, have dealt with much adversity to hold their position.

When we consider factors like budgets, access to international matches throughout a non-tournament year, fan exposure and professional opportunities, there are some women’s national programs that are just now catching up. As a result, the competition is getting tougher and the United States isn’t guaranteed to advance every time. 

Take the Colombia Women’s National Team, for example. After failing to qualify for the 2019 World Cup, the team has had an impressive resurgence. Colombia is not only making their citizens proud, but they also won the hearts of new fans across the globe by reaching the quarterfinals in a historic feat. Although they didn’t advance to the semifinals after a 2-1 loss against England, the team showed true grit, taking the game to the very last second of stoppage time. 

This is the reality of women’s soccer today, and it’s only going to continue. As the sport is popularized and invested in, teams are going to get stronger. 

And this isn’t to say that the USWNT doesn’t have any room to improve. There are many structural issues and team dynamics that they will need to fix. It just means that in the future, we can’t as quickly go into major tournaments such as the Olympics or World Cup automatically expecting the United States to dominate. Because, after decades of work to create opportunities for more countries to have a shot at that level of success, newer programs are stepping up to the plate — or pitch — and they’re proving that they earned their spot and are here to stay.

@mbnobles_

@dthopinion | opinion@dailytarheel.com

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