SheBelieves Cup should help take women’s soccer to the next level

The United States are World Cup champions, and come August they may be holders of yet another Olympic gold medal. But following up their conquest in Canada last summer with another title in Rio may prove to be even tougher than their triumph a year ago. So U.S. Soccer has organized the SheBelieves Cup to give the team the tests and preparation needed to reign supreme once again.

The talk around the tournament will undoubtedly be on the Olympics, and for good reason. With England, France and Germany all joining the Americans for the round robin competition, four of the world’s best teams will be battling it out in a preview of the action coming in the summer with a gold medal on the line. But the tournament itself, and the future of it, may be even bigger than whatever it does for the national team now or in Rio.

Fans flocked to their TVs to watch the USWNT at the World Cup and are eagerly anticipating the Olympics, but once the Games pass, it’s another 34 months before the next World Cup. For nearly three years, the Americans do not play a competitive match against a top team. Instead they schedule friendly after friendly, trying to make the best of an unideal world women’s soccer calendar, but it’s difficult for those contests to resonate with fans. 

Even when U.S. Soccer can get an excellent team for a friendly – Brazil is a common opponent – it’s still a friendly. And even qualifiers don’t do much to help matters. The matches may be competitive and have stakes, but Canada is the only CONCACAF team that can regularly give the Americans any sort of challenge and by the time the two teams meet, both have usually already qualified for the tournament they’re playing for a spot in.

The SheBelieves Cup has the potential to change that. If U.S. Soccer can establish the tournament as an annual event featuring some of the best teams in the world and make it a fixture on the American sporting calendar, the national team could have a regular competition that brings excitement and eyeballs. No longer would the team fade away for years, only to burst back on the scene just before the World Cup.

The idea isn’t entirely new. The federation put on the U.S. Cup in the 1990’s for both the men and women that was intended to provide both national teams with needed matches against top level competition and it certainly succeeded on the men’s side, as the likes of Italy, Brazil, Mexico, England and Colombia all competed. But while the men have a plenty packed calendar now with the World Cup, World Cup qualifying and the bi-annual Gold Cup, not to mention Copa America Centenario this year, the same isn’t true for the women.

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For the women, the U.S. Cup is still needed, arguably more than ever before. The increased attention and support of the national team gives them a fan base and momentum will extraordinary potential to grow. Call it the SheBelieves Cup instead, as they are this year, but keep the competition going.

Every year, the U.S. needs to bring some of the world’s best teams to the country and play matches for a trophy. Maybe the silverware won’t matter much, at least to begin with. After all, it’s a contrived competition, but time can change that. Fan excitement can change that.

The Algarve Cup, a fixture on the women’s soccer calendar that served the same purpose as the SheBelieves Cup for years, doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s small stature, location in a small Portuguese town and struggles for regular TV coverage aren’t suitable for the growing women’s game and the demands a more popular sport has placed upon it.

A regular SheBelieves Cup, or whatever name they want to call it in the coming years, can do what the Algarve Cup did, but on a grander scale. The national team could get the high quality competition they need, but on a bigger stage. Sponsors are, and will continue to be interested in the tournament. Already this year, the Americans first match is on national TV (Thursday vs. England, 7:45 p.m. ET on FS1). The following two have been relegated to internet streaming, but at least it’s on an established platform and going forward, it’s possible to get all the matches onto TV.

The SheBelieves Cup can possible do more than just bolster the national team, it could prove to be a marketing tool for the National Women’s Soccer League as well. Playing matches in NWSL cities, allowing clubs to promote themselves in stadiums and marketing the league as a whole around the matches could be a boon to the league. With a regular national team tournament and a growing domestic professional league, the fight for regular attention in a crowded soccer and sports market becomes a lot fairer.

When the U.S. takes to the field in Brazil this summer, all eyes will be on the gold medal. Maybe the SheBelieves Cup will prove to be a crucial preparation tool that allows them to come home as world champions yet again. But what will happen in the next 34 months until the 2019 Women’s World Cup? That’s the next challenge. The answer lies in regular competition, like the second, third and fourth annual SheBelieves Cups. As important as the first one may be, the ones that follow, if there are any, is where the real goldmine is.