For the past decade, the United States has made the FIFA Women’s World Cup its own personal barnstorming tour. Specifically since the waning moments of the quarterfinal against Brazil in 2011, when Megan Rapinoe and Abby Wambach … you know what? Let’s just watch the highlight again. It never gets old.
It’s rare to see a goal of such incredibly high quality scored at such a pivotal time, and even rarer that one on-field event becomes such a clear watershed moment in the history of a sport. But Wambach’s last-second equalizer brought the U.S. back from the precipice of an all-time worst performance at the World Cup, seemingly the nadir of a slide from the cultural high-water mark of the 1999 World Cup. And the team advanced all the way to the final (though they lost on penalties to sentimental underdog Japan). Rapinoe, Wambach, Hope Solo, and Alex Morgan became national icons. The NWSL was founded a year later, finally entrenching a sustainable professional women’s soccer league into the American sports landscape. And, oh yeah, the USWNT won the next two World Cups with relative ease.
Which is not to say the last decade has been entirely smooth sailing for women’s soccer. There have been awkward generational exchanges as Solo, Wambach, and Carli Lloyd aged out of the starting lineup, the odd coaching controversy, and a pair of embarrassing early exits in the past two Olympics. (It’s never OK to lose to Canada.) But the USWNT hasn’t lost since last year’s Olympic semifinal; it’s conceded only one goal in 10 matches this calendar year; and though the coming World Cup will likely be the last for Rapinoe and team captain Becky Sauerbrunn, the next generation seems as strong as ever. If you don’t know Sophia Smith, Trinity Rodman, and Catarina Macario already, you will by the end of next year.
But with the next World Cup almost exactly one year away, and the European Championships currently playing out in England, the early returns are these: The top European teams—England, Germany, France, maybe even Spain—ought to make the USWNT nervous.
In the early days of high-level international women’s soccer—the 1990s—the U.S. dominated because of a number of built-in structural advantages. Certainly the country’s immense population and national wealth played a role, but it takes decades to build a successful national team in any sport, and Title IX gave the country a 20-year head start on most of the rest of the world. The U.S. had already minted its first generation of stars—Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers, Briana Scurry, and others—before other nations even got their wheels spinning.
It took more than a decade, but eventually other teams started to catch up. Germany and Brazil handed the USWNT embarrassing World Cup semifinal losses in 2003 and 2007, respectively. And other rich midsize countries with a strong history of women’s sports participation—Japan, Sweden, Canada—also emerged as players on the world stage.
But much of Europe not only lagged behind the U.S. in women’s soccer from the 1970s, but failed to get on board after the first World Cup in 1991, or when the mania over the 1999 World Cup showed that women’s soccer was here to stay. UEFA started a Women’s Champions League in 2001, but until recently only a few European clubs you’d recognize—Arsenal, Olympique Lyon, Wolfsburg, Eintracht Frankfurt—bothered to fund women’s teams good enough to compete. (As a result, the delightfully named Turbine Potsdam was able to snag multiple European titles. Take that, PSG and Man City.)
Since 2011, though, the world has gotten smaller—and if not more feminist, then at least more cognizant that big corporations can make a ton of money and generate goodwill by appearing to be feminist. So the rest of Europe has started to catch on. Chelsea, Barcelona, and PSG are now running highly successful and well-funded women’s soccer operations, and most of the major Western European powers in men’s soccer have at least a credible women’s team.
As a result, some truly scary competition has come together, across both domestic and international competition.
No country has made greater gains in the past decade than Spain, whose women were conspicuously nowhere (as in, literally not qualifying for major tournaments) while the men tiki-taka’d their way to one trophy after another. Barcelona only professionalized its women’s team in 2015, but since then, it’s become a continental force and taken the national team along for the ride. In 2020-21, Barca finished the league season with a record of 33 wins, no draws, and one loss, scoring 167 goals and conceding just 15. They also won the Copa de la Reina and the Champions League, beating Chelsea 4-0 in the final.
Spain, which qualified for its first World Cup in 2015, finished second at the SheBelieves Cup in 2020, beating Japan and England and losing to the U.S. on an 87th-minute winner by Julie Ertz. Spain didn’t lose again for the next 26 months and entered the Euros ranked seventh in the world.
That streak ended Tuesday, when Germany capitalized on an early goalkeeping mistake and pressed the Spanish off the field. Both of Germany’s group stage wins—2-0 over Spain and an even more dominant 4-0 triumph over Denmark—came without star midfielder Dzsenifer Marozsan, who’s out for the tournament with an ACL injury. And the Spain win came without star striker Lea Schuller, who has 25 goals in 39 appearances for her country, after she tested positive for COVID.
After winning back-to-back World Cups in 2003 and 2007, Germany underwhelmed in the late 2010s and early 2020s, but appears entirely back now in the first full cycle under coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg. And perhaps most concerning, this German team is young: Compared to a USWNT that’s heavy on players over 30, two-thirds of Germany’s roster is 27 or younger. Schuller is 24, right back Giulia Gwinn—the best young player at the 2019 World Cup—is still just 23, and center midfielder Lena Oberdorf, 20, was born after Wambach made her international debut. Germany looks dominant now and only has more upside.
The team that gave the USWNT the toughest run in 2019 was France, who controlled possession but were unable to penetrate the American defensive shell in a 2-1 quarterfinal loss. The three years since have been, um, eventful for the French. Manager Corinne Diacre entered the Euros on a wave of controversy and dressing room discontent that would have made Raymond Domenech blanch. Diacre has feuded with basically every one of her star players at some point during her six-year tenure; in advance of the Euros, she dropped captain Amandine Henry from the squad altogether, handing the armband to defender Wendie Renard, whom Diacre had controversially stripped of the captaincy years before. The team is missing midfielder Kheira Hamraoui, who last November was attacked by two masked men wielding metal bars; that same week, her teammate Aminata Diallo was arrested on suspicion of organizing the Nancy Kerrigan–style attack, though she was eventually released without charge. Three months later, two of France’s forwards—Kadidiatou Diani and Marie-Antoinette Katoto, celebrated a goal with a gesture of support for Diallo. The France dressing room, in short, makes the Brooklyn Nets look like Remember the Titans.
So what did France do in its first game of the tournament? Beat the brakes off Italy. Absolutely demolished them.
Italy isn’t some tomato can—this is a top-15 team in the world, and one that won the toughest group in the 2019 World Cup. And France made them look positively pitiable. Grace Geyoro scored a hat trick in the first half, Delphine Cascarino put an exclamation point on that with a rocket from the edge of the box, and the second half was academic—up 5-0 at the break, France chose to take it easy rather than push for a double-digit victory.
American fans will remember Diani from her epic Pacific Rim–style battle with Crystal Dunn in 2019, but Katoto was left out of that squad despite scoring better than a goal a game in 2018-19. (Another Diacre decision that perplexed observers at the time.) France’s attacking trio ought to scare the hell out of any defense, and the Renard-anchored back line—which barely appeared on-screen against Italy, so dominant was France in possession—remains one of the best in the world.
But it gets scarier than France 5, Italy 1.
About 30 seconds after the U.S.’s 2-1 semifinal win over England in the last World Cup, public memory of the game crystalized into Morgan’s tea drinking celebration and not a lot else. But the truth is, the U.S. came very close—a missed penalty and a bad red card by Millie Bright—to losing that game. Which is problematic for two reasons.
First, England was already talented enough to put in that performance despite being managed by Phil Neville. If the late-1990s Manchester United team was the cast of Good Will Hunting, David Beckham would be Matt Damon, Phil’s brother Gary would be Ben Affleck, Paul Scholes would be Casey Affleck, and Phil would be Cole Houser. Since leaving the England job, Phil has joined the Beckham-owned Inter Miami and led the club resolutely to the bottom third of the MLS Eastern Conference table. He’s not a very good coach.
England’s new coach, however, is Sarina Wiegman, recently of the Dutch national team that won Euro 2017 and made it to the final of the 2019 World Cup. Wiegman was able to conjure magic from forwards Vivianne Miedema and Lieke Martens, and is among the best coaches to be found anywhere in the women’s game.
And as talented as England was in 2019, they’re even more so now. This was not a team starved for offensive skill before: England’s all-time leading scorer, Ellen White, and Chelsea superstar Fran Kirby can attest to that. But as the top Premier League clubs have invested in their women’s teams, a new generation of goal scorers and playmakers has emerged, including Ella Toone and Alessia Russo of Manchester United and Lauren Hemp of Manchester City.
England’s most dangerous player right now is Arsenal winger Beth Mead, who’s been on the scene for a while—she won the Golden Boot in the English top flight in 2015 as a 20-year-old—but has leveled up in the past calendar year.
Mead is fast, direct, physical, and ruthless in front of the goal. Last season she led the WSL (England’s top division) in shots and goals created per 90 minutes, despite getting her ankles kicked to smithereens every time she touched the ball. (Mead was also third in the league in fouls suffered.)
At club level, Mead benefits from the playmaking not only of Miedema, but of center back Leah Williamson, who at age 25 was named England captain before the Euros. Center back is a difficult position at which to develop an entertaining style of play. But Williamson’s approach to passing, from basically anywhere within 80 yards of the opposing goal, is “Screw it, we’re going long.” Few central defenders of any gender are as comfortable quarterbacking the Air Raid as Williamson is.
The captaincy has been demystified for the USWNT after a senior leadership group rotated the armband for much of the late 2010s, but it’s still a big deal in England. And it says a lot that Williamson got it just as she was breaking into the starting lineup. She’s almost unsettlingly cool under pressure, as evidenced by this video in which Mead puts on a skeleton mask and sends a series of teammates screaming for cover; Williamson barely flinches.
So far at the Euros, England has put together an efficient 1-0 win over Austria, behind a goal from Mead, and delivered one of the most dominant performances you’ll ever see against Norway.
Norway is a serious challenge, a serial tournament quarterfinalist whose forward duo of Caroline Graham Hansen and Ada Hegerberg is as good as any in the world. And England tore them to smithereens, with the hosts dropping a positively inhospitable 8-0 ass-beating on the 1995 World Cup winners. Mead chipped in three of those goals for her fourth international hat trick in the past nine months. Read that again: four international hat tricks in nine months.
England-Norway was supposed to be one of the most hotly contested games of the entire group stage; instead, it delivered frightening notice to the rest of the world of what England is capable of with a top-end head coach and a bumper crop of rising stars emerging from the first decade of real investment in the women’s game in the U.K.
The USWNT will touch down in Oceania next summer aiming to make history: No team, men’s or women’s, has ever won three World Cups in a row or reached four World Cup finals in a row. It isn’t an impossible objective, especially given the fire hose supply of young talent being integrated into the American roster. But now that the traditional European soccer powers are finally taking the women’s game seriously, the U.S. will have to work harder than ever before to actually pull it off.