Why you should care
Because the competition is getting tougher for the U.S. women’s team.
In the 2002 film Bend It Like Beckham, the two young women playing soccer over their parents’ objections have two inspirations: English superstar David Beckham (hence the title) and American women’s soccer. They stare with amazement at highlights of the WUSA, the U.S. professional league at the time, and they end the film by traveling across the Atlantic to play college soccer.
Today, the characters played by Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley would be more likely to stay put and sign with professional clubs in England. Then they might join an English national team with the confidence that it can beat the Americans, even in this summer’s World Cup.
England has finally gotten serious about its women’s league.
The progress has been so rapid that Emma Hayes, a former coach in the U.S. and now a Member of the Order of the British Empire for her service to women’s soccer in her home country, says England is the place to be.
“We are setting the tone, the trend, the way in the world,” Hayes said at a March press conference. “It’s always been about America, but sorry, they lag behind us now.”
Not quite yet, say a couple of people who’ve spent time in each country.
“It’s cool to see the growth, but in a lot of areas, I think it’s still behind,” says Portland Thorns coach Mark Parsons, one of several English coaches in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) in the U.S. and a former coach of Chelsea’s reserve team.
“I think in terms of a depth of talent pool, the U.S. is far superior still with our university system, the sheer numbers of girls who are playing and the societal view of girls playing,” says longtime U.S. player Heather O’Reilly, who spent 2017 and part of 2018 playing professionally with London club Arsenal.
The U.S. does still attract some outstanding English players, including several on England’s World Cup roster who have played collegiately and professionally here. But we’ve recently seen players going the other way — O’Reilly to Arsenal, Crystal Dunn to Chelsea, Carli Lloyd to Manchester City. A few years ago, U.S. national team veterans wouldn’t be likely to make such a move. But England has finally gotten serious about its women’s league. It’s not perfect — O’Reilly says she was frustrated with the dismal attention and attendance the women’s teams received — but it’s much better than it was.
“Even a couple of years before I got to Arsenal, they were training twice a week at nighttime,” O’Reilly says. “Now they’re training five days a week.”
That progress toward professionalism has kept talented female players in the game, and the impact has been immediate. Eleven English players made the Guardian’s list of the top 100 players in the world in 2018.
The salary-capped NWSL is still better top to bottom, with teams facing a challenging game every week and some teams lurching wildly between the playoffs and oblivion from season to season. England’s Women’s Super League has more parity than the lopsided leagues in France and Germany, but Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea have claimed virtually permanent berths in the top three. “It’s investment from a lot more clubs, but not all clubs,” Parsons says.
But England has also invested at the national team level, and the U.S. women will be well aware that this is not the same England team they regularly routed in the 1990s and 2000s. In 2011, England beat the U.S. in London by a 2-1 score, the first such result since women’s soccer was virtually an underground activity in the 1980s.
By 2015, England had climbed into the top five in the FIFA world rankings. Their new status as a world power granted them invitations to the SheBelieves Cup, which gathers four strong women’s soccer teams each March for a round-robin tournament in the U.S. For the first three years, the U.S.-England games finished with 1-0 scores — the U.S. won in 2016 and 2018; England won in 2017. This year, England tied the U.S. 2-2, then went on to win the tournament with a 3-0 victory against Japan, which has reached the final of the last two World Cups and won in 2011.
Those tallies show how England can score in bunches. In 2018, England took a 4-0 lead shortly after halftime against France, another World Cup favorite. The team has no shortage of potent scorers, including Jodie Taylor of the NWSL’s Reign FC. If England gets a rematch with the U.S. in the World Cup, anything is possible.
“They’re not scared of the U.S. anymore,” O’Reilly says.
The Thread, OZY’s chart-topping weekly podcast, is back. In Season 5, we explore the history-making 1999 U.S. women’s soccer team and all of the unheralded athletes, policymakers and activists who made their journey possible. Subscribe now to follow The Thread on OZY.com, Spotify, Apple, Himalaya or wherever you prefer to stream your audio.