Less than a year from now, the United States women’s national team will get another chance at winning a third World Cup title at the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada. It’ll be the first World Cup to be aired by FOX Sports, the new rights-holders to the world’s biggest sporting event.
Last week marked the 15th anniversary since the United States won its last Women’s World Cup, on home soil. It has indeed been a decade and a half since the girls of summer rampaged through the group stage, overcame Germany in the quarterfinals, beat Brazil and then, finally and gloriously, bested China on penalties. Team USA captivated a doting nation then, sending the Rose Bowl into raptures as Brandi Chastain famously whipped her jersey over her head.
But that was then. Now, you’re probably still smarting from the United States men’s national team’s heartbreaker against Belgium from last month, when they were knocked out of the World Cup in the Round of 16 despite a yeoman show from Tim Howard. That hurt, and, you may not yet have gotten over the women’s own heartache in the final of the 2011 World Cup, when they lost to a seemingly pre-destined Japanese team on penalties. That hurt even more, but now comes a chance to heal.
A year out, there are almost too many plot lines and narratives to wrap your head around. The top-ranked American women still need to qualify for this tournament in October. It’s thought to be a bit of a formality, since the last time they went up against the rest of their CONCACAF region in a qualification tournament, for the 2012 Olympics in London, they won all five of their games by a cumulative score of 38-0.
Yet they have had a turbulent year thus far. Following their worst-ever performance at the Algarve Cup in March — finishing seventh with no wins — head coach Tom Sermanni was dismissed. Oddly, he was not dismissed immediately — but the following month, and just hours after a win over China. It came seemingly out of the blue; even he was blindsided, as he told FOX Sports at the time.
Jill Ellis is his capable and apparently well-liked replacement, previously the Under-20 and Under-21 national coach and the program’s development director. She will seek to recapture the team’s long-standing dominance and continue Sermanni’s job of rejuvenating the team and building more depth and technical acumen into the squad. But not much time remains now to set things right. While the USA is perhaps as deep as ever, it all needs to coalesce into something cohesive and competitive in fairly short order.
This is especially true since the Americans have a new rival in the home team, Canada. They have fought a series of physical and bitter battles of late, highlighted by their epic clash at the 2012 Olympics. A sense that they were robbed by a series of calls at the London Games that saw the Americans through to the final — and the gold medal — still prevails among Canadians. And they’re still sore about Sydney Leroux, the finest player to come out of Canada since Christine Sinclair, decamping South to don the Stars and Stripes.
But there are plenty of other teams to worry about as well. The 2011 World Cup made it abundantly clear that the rest of the world is catching up to the Americans, who are the only team to have medaled in all six editions of the tournament. Several countries are leaping ahead technically. France, for instance, is a budding superpower and a team that is better on the ball. They went ahead by two goals against the Americans at the last Olympics, ultimately losing, and fought them just as hard at the last World Cup.
For the first time, the Women’s World Cup will consist of 24 teams. And while some worry that it will dilute the quality of the tournament in the short run, it will probably benefit the women’s game in the long term, as more countries take an interest through their presence on the world stage.
But there is controversy brewing as well. Of the six stadiums spread across Canada selected for this tournament, five currently have artificial turf surfaces. The sixth, in Moncton, will be fitted with turf before the tournament begins. The players have understandably and rightly been vocal about their dismay, pointing out that a men’s World Cup has never been played on plastic.
The loudest detractor is USA superstar Abby Wambach. The American striker — and world record holder for international goals among both men and women — will be 35 by the time the tournament begins. And owing to her uber-physical playing style, her legs require careful maintenance and management. A tournament on turf is something of a disaster for her, but one she will have to cope with nonetheless.
Wambach has yet to win a World Cup. She has her Olympic gold medals, her World Player of the Year Award and 167 international goals and counting. But this will surely be her last shot at completing her resume.
Next summer will be huge for her, her country — and every other country. The whole world will be watching.