Now this is what World Cup qualifying is supposed to be like. The United States women’s national team did what the men’s team failed to do and qualified for the World Cup — without any drama. Looking to next summer and the United States’ attempt to defend its world title in France, women’s soccer is better than ever, and yet still not what it could be.
While the men’s World Cup is considering expanding to 48 teams, the women’s version of the tournament still is stuck at 24. Given the wide disparities between the top teams and the rest, even 24 teams might be a stretch.
Nowhere is this disparity on display better than in CONCACAF, where the USA just breezed through its World Cup qualification tournament with statistically improbable ease. The United States outscored its opponents 25-0 in five games. It held opponents to a grand total of 13 shots. Not shots on goal, but shots. Striker Alex Morgan had more goals (seven) than the USA’s opponents had shots on goal (five).
In its 7-0 victory against Trinidad and Tobago, the USA outshot the visitors 52-0 and actually had more shots at goal than T&T had completed passes (45).
Those amazing numbers also are depressing. Outside of Canada, which the USA defeated 2-0 in the championship game, the region has zero decent teams. The Canadians had just as easy a time in this tournament as the United States did, winning their other four games by a combined score of 24-1. Mexico and Costa Rica, which boast exceptional men’s teams, couldn’t manage to even make the semifinals on the women’s side. Jamaica, the only other team from this side of the globe that qualified for the World Cup, managed just one shot — off target— in a 6-0 loss to the USA.
It’s also clear that, at least on an international level, help isn’t coming. FIFA announced last week that next summer’s World Cup will carry $30 million in total prize money. That’s a record for a women’s tournament but pales in comparison to the men’s tournament, which awards $400 million. FIFA also scheduled the women’s World Cup final to be the same day as both the final of the men’s Copa América and men’s Gold Cup, thus ensuring divided attention across North and South America.
It’s a vicious cycle. FIFA’s position is that there simply isn’t enough interest in global women’s soccer to fund a prize pool worth hundreds of millions.
National soccer federations, which thus have little financial incentive to fund top-tier women’s teams, concentrate their resources elsewhere. That means less global interest in women’s soccer, and the cycle continues.
This limits the women’s global soccer elite to a handful of rich countries that value gender equality. Those countries, many without long traditions of soccer success on the men’s side, have become global powerhouses.
Women’s soccer needs more countries to take that plunge, to commit seriously to the women’s game.
The best in the current game did it because it was the right thing to do, and belatedly found out the game was extremely marketable. Other countries need to invest and take that same path, or women’s soccer will never be what it should be: the global equal of the men’s game.
• The U. S. men’s national team also was in action this week, losing 4-2 to Colombia and tying Peru 1-1, but giving fans hope for the future by playing a group of talented young players in both games. It would be a surprise if the team isn’t turned over to this cadre of talented under-25s, who will be tasked with qualifying for the 2022 and 2026 World Cup as well.
• Oddly, a Barcelona official announced this week that the Spanish giants would be fielding a National Women’s Soccer League team either next year or the year after. League officials reportedly are insisting that nothing of the sort is true. Previous attempts by European clubs to open American outposts have mostly ended in disaster. If Barcelona is really going to start a pro women’s team, here’s hoping it commits to it long-term.
• The biggest story in France’s Ligue 1 is not at the top of the league but the bottom, where Monaco — champs two years ago, second last season — is mired in 18th place. The club replaced manager Leonardo Jardim with former France and Arsenal superstar Thierry Henry, who is taking on his first management job. With Paris Saint-Germain dominating the league, Henry and Monaco are now the best reason to watch France.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
La Liga: Sevilla at Barcelona, 1:45 p.m. Saturday, beIN. Barcelona hasn’t won in four league games. Sevilla, meanwhile, has won four consecutive matches, including a 3-0 pummeling of Real Madrid. New manager Pablo Machín, Sevilla’s fifth manager in the two years since current Arsenal manager Unai Emery departed, will be desperate to prove himself against Barca and stay atop the Spanish standings.