“It’s the second consecutive year that we haven’t produced something at 100 percent,” the head of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, Jill Ellis, said on Tuesday after USA Women’s Soccer qualified for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. “I’m really thankful for the short term sacrifice, as this is what we know the sport needs.”
It was an important statement from Ellis. More than a decade ago, a deadly virus changed the sport in America.
Since 2006, the U.S. national soccer team has carried a serious burden of expectation, with the women from the 2007 World Cup terrorizing opponents the way an NFL team would terrorize its opponents in a cold-weather venue. The idea was that, when lightning strikes in chilly New England, Americans will throw more mud in the same amount of time.
But back in 2006, the U.S. was underprepared for such a madhouse, leading to a disappointing quarterfinal loss to Japan, sending the women back to “warm up” the following year.
“We had a bad injury, we had a dropout, we had a flu outbreak. It was truly and in what we do it was a rude awakening,” U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati told The New York Times in October of 2006. “A year later was when they realized they needed to put everything they had into preparation.”
In June of 2006, The New York Times reported that “soccer and the team’s dreams were in peril” because the decision had not been made “to prepare adequately and build a foundation for an entire country to rally around.”
The U.S. went on to win its fifth World Cup and it was thrilling to see the American women move one step closer to another team’s potential fears — its angst about the country falling behind in the transition to women’s soccer and the achievements of the girls.
“When you look at the history of women’s soccer … it’s very exciting for me, but I’m still really humble,” midfielder Carli Lloyd said in her first-ever Women’s World Cup interview with The New York Times. “I’m a lot of years from a number of things. We have a lot to accomplish.”
And now the U.S. women, whose leadership of the sport did more than anything else to make it a global phenomenon, are going to have to devote their energy to keeping the game stable and funded and progressing with athletes — men and women — that are simultaneously benefiting from the game.
“I think we can already say it’s a success,” U.S. Soccer Chief Financial Officer Joe Cacciatore told The New York Times about their 2018 World Cup bid. “We’ve received tremendous support. And the fact that the fans came out in tremendous numbers and we drew huge television ratings tells us, that these national games are going to be everywhere, and we’re going to continue to play these games.
“So I’m very optimistic. But I certainly don’t want people to think we’re starting this off on a weak note.”
The Women’s World Cup is going to be held in France this summer. The stakes for U.S. Soccer are higher than the World Cup for the U.S. women and it won’t be easy to keep the sports industry from engaging with them as much as it engages with the men. But hopefully, as they have in the past, the women will hit the ground running with the world watching and that the momentum can continue, and grow, in years to come.