FIFA Women's World Cup
Spain’s World Cup success offers USA blueprint for future
FIFA Women's World Cup

Spain’s World Cup success offers USA blueprint for future

Published Aug. 21, 2023 6:06 p.m. ET

American soccer fans had descended on the French city of Reims by the thousands, but you wouldn't know it inside Stade Auguste-Delaune as the clock ticked toward 90 minutes.

Spain was outplaying the United States women's national team in its first knockout stage game of the 2019 Women's World Cup. The heavily pro-U.S. crowd was quiet. Nervous, too.

It stayed that way until Megan Rapinoe's second penalty kick of the afternoon won it late in the second half for the USWNT, which then went on to beat host France, England and the Netherlands to claim its second consecutive title. But for the most dominant American World Cup squad ever, La Roja was their toughest test by far.

Watching Spain hoist the Women's World Cup on Sunday for the first time, it was hard not to think back to four years ago and the round-of-16 game against the U.S. La Roja had only qualified for the tournament twice at that point. Its lone win, over Chile, had come just weeks before. Yet on that blistering hot day in Reims, it was obvious Spain was on the fast track to glory. 


That World Cup triumph came in its very next try was perhaps the only surprise; FIFA's No. 6 team is the lowest-ranked one to win it all. Yet we know exactly how it happened: from Spain's girls national teams through the senior level, the program is stocked with players who are better both tactically and with the ball at their feet — better trained, in other words — than any other anywhere else on the planet.

"We have never moved the ball like Spain does," U.S. legend Julie Foudy posted on social media during the match. "Their grace on the ball is gorgeous to watch."

In the run-up to Sunday's final, many Americans were looking at England as the women's game's new standard-bearer. Which makes sense. The European champs' roster is also stacked. The country's Football Association pours money into the women's game generally and the Lionesses specifically. 

After losing to the U.S. in the semis in 2019, England made former Netherlands manager Sarina Wiegman — regarded as women's soccer's top coach — the highest paid one, too.

None of it was enough Sunday to beat a Spanish team that, despite missing 12 regulars who refused to play for controversial coach Jorge Vilda, thoroughly deserved to win on Sunday. The 1-0 score line made the game, in which La Roja's Jennifer Hermoso missed a second half penalty kick, look closer than it was.

If the record four-time champion U.S. is to reclaim its status as the best program in women's soccer, Spain — not England or anyone else — is the blueprint going forward.

There are many reasons why the USWNT dominated women's soccer for three decades. The NCAA system and Title IX gave the country a tremendous head start. The suburban youth soccer culture encouraged girls to try the sport, and parents in those communities had the resources to pay for them to. Over time, that gave U.S. Soccer an enormous pool of players to select national teamers from. For a long time, the USWNT won because they were fitter, faster, stronger and more experienced than its opponents.

That model no longer works. Soccer-crazy European countries already had the world's best coaches and facilities on the men's side, allowing them to quickly catch up when they began taking women's soccer seriously. And none are better at producing complete soccer players at younger ages than Spain.

As on the men's side, Spanish youth coaches prioritize technical ability and intelligence above athleticism. Much of that development occurs before the age of 14. 

La Roja star Salma Paralluelo had played dozens of matches in Liga F, Spain's top professional league, before turning 18 — the same age at which many American players are just beginning their college careers.

Unlike FC Barcelona and other historic, wealthy European clubs, teams in the U.S.-based National Women's Soccer League don't have youth academies, a distinct disadvantage when it comes to creating future stars. While NWSL sides have signed blue-chip teenagers such as 17-year-old Olivia Moultrie of the Portland Thorns and Angel City's Alyssa Thompson, who at 18 was the youngest member of the U.S.'s 2023 World Cup roster, it's not enough.

Historically, super skilled American players such as Rose Lavelle, Tobin Heath and Carli Lloyd have been mostly self-taught. Lavelle wasn't even highly recruited by college teams; she made her name at the University of Wisconsin, not UNC or UCLA. That sort of luck won't cut it going forward. Truly elite players are increasingly made, not born.

Skill and soccer IQ will separate the best from the rest as the women's game continues to evolve. As much as improved athleticism and defensive organization allowed more nations than ever to be competitive at the 2023 Women's World Cup, those qualities alone aren't enough to win the title. Not anymore. 

The countries that produce the best all-around soccer players will be the ones to beat, both now and in the future. The U.S. Soccer Federation knows it. It has for a long time. 

That narrow victory against Spain in 2019 only foreshadowed the challenges that lay ahead for USWNT. La Roja's World Cup win on Sunday was simply a reminder of how little time American soccer has to waste to keep pace.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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