FIFA Women's World Cup
Spain, England will remind USWNT of its fatal flaws in this World Cup
FIFA Women's World Cup

Spain, England will remind USWNT of its fatal flaws in this World Cup

Updated Aug. 18, 2023 2:58 a.m. ET

SYDNEY, Australia — Fans of the United States women's national team will have a sour taste in their mouths while watching the World Cup final Sunday.

The obvious reason being they expected the Americans to be playing in this game — plenty of people are walking around Sydney still proudly wearing their USWNT jerseys and gear because they bought tickets long ago based on the assumption their team would be battling for that third straight title. 

Perhaps the less clear reason, though, is that England and Spain, the two European nations that will square off here at Stadium Australia (coverage begins at 5 a.m. ET, with kickoff at 6 a.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app), are shining examples of what the U.S. used to be and can be again. 

Soccer purists will love the matchup. Two technically and tactically sound teams with exciting star players. Both sides are well-organized and quick to get the ball back when they lose it. They're ruthless in their attack, fearless in front of goal and physical when they need to be. 


They're resilient, and have both overcome all kinds of obstacles to get here (England with injuries, Spain with a near mutiny). They are also loaded with depth and seem poised to dominate for years to come.

The USWNT, which lost to Sweden in the round of 16 in its earliest exit in World Cup history, had been a leader in these areas. But for far too long, the Americans relied on being bigger, faster and stronger, and imposing a mentality of "we want it more" that helped them will their way to hoisting lots of trophies. 

While former players such as Carli Lloyd have said publicly they saw the USA's demise coming for years, it's also worth pointing out that all dynasties in sports usually come to an end. 

But what Lloyd and others have been saying is the senior national team's success for the last decade has masked underlying and systemic issues that have been bubbling at the youth levels for years. Yes, Vlatko Andonovski resigning as the USWNT coach this week means U.S. Soccer Sporting Director Matt Crocker can officially go out and find the right coach to fix myriad problems before the Paris Olympics next summer and the next World Cup in 2027. But a reason why England and Spain are playing in the final and the U.S. is not is because of what those nations have been doing at the lower levels for quite some time. 

FIFA Women's World Cup final preview: Spain vs. England

Spain, ranked No. 6 in the world by FIFA, has been a rising power in the game for a while and has made it to the final here in just its third appearance. La Roja nearly went deeper into the tournament four years ago and posed the biggest threat to the USWNT in a nervy round-of-16 match, but the Americans ended up winning, thanks to two penalty kicks from Megan Rapinoe.

Despite a disjointed relationship between the players and federation that have taken over headlines, Spain's younger teams have been killing it. That's because Spain exposes top young talent to professional environments early on, which helps accelerate development.

Take 19-year-old Barcelona forward Salma Paralluelo. She was on the Spanish squads that won the U-17 World Cup in 2018 and the U-20 World Cup in 2022. She made her senior team debut in November 2022, scored a hat trick in that friendly match against Argentina, and has been a true X-factor ever since. At this summer's World Cup, she scored critical goals in the quarterfinal and semifinal (she also helped club team Barcelona win a Champions League title earlier this year). 

Spain, which by the way is the youngest team (average age 25.3) to reach the final since 1995, is the first team in history to clinch a berth in a senior World Cup final while also being reigning U-17 and U-20 tournament champions. 

The U.S. has never won a U-17 World Cup since its inception in 2008. The last time it won a U-20 title? That was in 2012 when Julie Ertz (then Johnston) and Crystal Dunn were part of the squad. 

Alexi Lalas reacts to England's dominant semifinal win

England, meanwhile, is a team that also had a ton of injuries heading into this summer. One of the most common excuses for the USWNT's performance here was that likely starters Mallory Swanson, Catarina Macario, Sam MewisBecky Sauerbrunn and others were unavailable because they were still recovering from injuries. Andonovski failed to solve for their absences and paid the price.

The No. 4-ranked Lionesses arrived at the World Cup missing big-time players such as captain Leah Williamson, 2022 Ballon d'Or finalist Beth Mead, and forward Fran Kirby. They were also without 21-year-old phenom Lauren James the past two matches after she was shown a red card in the round-of-16 victory over Nigeria. James will return for the final, but the reigning European champions haven't missed a beat and have looked like a deserved favorite most of this tournament. 

"The strength of this team is we stick together. We've got an incredibly tight bond. We've got a tight-knit team," English defender Lucy Bronze said this week. "Winning the Euros gave us a huge amount of confidence, but we've suffered a few losses this year in terms of big players, a lot of noise on the outside, and it's just pushed us closer together.

"Before the tournament, people had us down to get knocked out in the group or something, and now we're in the final."

Spain overcomes Sweden to reach first World Cup final

So, why couldn't the U.S. conquer its own setbacks in real time? Sure, Andonovski was criticized for his tactical approach, strategy around substitutions and inability to correctly adapt to issues mid-game. But England and Spain are proof that the USWNT's current problems run deeper.

And that will be on full display in Sunday's World Cup final.

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of "Strong Like a Woman," published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.

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