For many years, the US have led the way in women’s football, winning three of the seven Women’s World Cups and turning international games into a recognised national event. However, as the international game’s profile has increased, so have the number of pay disputes and frustrations among US players on a domestic level.
In contrast, after years of trying to emulate the practices of the US system, England have managed to grow over the last decade, reflected in much more consistent international performances. But are the issues in the women’s game across the Atlantic, England’s opportunity to finally overtake Team USA?
NWSL and the US Setup
It is common knowledge that the sustained success of the US women’s team is down to the college system for bringing through young players. The squad for their friendlies in late 2016 reflected this by including 11 uncapped players in the squad. While this number of new players shows incredible promise for the future, all of them will have to work in the domestic league to establish themselves, and this is where the system is faltering.
Founded in 2012, the National Women’s Soccer League was developed after the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league folded. Despite outlasting its predecessor by reaching a fourth season, some of the league’s policy and behaviour has seen a rupture between it and the players.
Although the national team is one of the best in the World, there is a strong feeling among the players that the US governing bodies are not respecting the women’s game.
This frustration was compounded in July 2016, when Western New York Flash’s regular home stadium was being used for a ‘90s themed pop concert. This meant that the club were forced to play at the home of a local baseball team. The hastily marked out pitch fell short of NWSL’s own minimum size standards by 12 yards, meaning it was only slightly wider than the penalty area. MLS (Major League Soccer, the men’s top division) might be behind traditional American sport, but it is well financed and the players are looked after. Put simply, a situation like this would simply never occur for a men’s team, and that is what has spurred the women to action.
Taking a stand
Currently, the players are seeking to negotiate a CBA (collective bargaining agreement) to bring parity across the game for men’s and women’s football – not just for financial reasons, but for equality in terms of respect and conditions. But make no mistake, finance is a huge factor. The average women’s wages for the six-month season is in the region of just $10,000, meaning they may have to work other jobs to subsidise their professional careers. In contrast, the average wage in the NASL (the second tier of the men’s game) is just below $40,000 for the same six-month season.
If the player’s negotiation committee fails to come to an agreement with NWSL, women’s soccer could be forced to a standstill with lengthy strikes, creating a blockage of the middle ground between College and international level play for young players coming through – a plateau which rival nations could see as an opportunity to steal a march on the current World Champions.
2015 saw the England national team set down a marker of their growth on the international stage by winning the Cyprus Cup for the third time. Unlike the SheBelieves Cup, which is an invitational tournament featuring four of the top five teams in the world, the Cyprus Cup does not feature all the top-ranking teams. Although England’s consistent success in the event clearly demonstrates that the current generation deserve their seat at the top table of the game.
The 2015 World Cup saw England fail to reach the final after losing to an agonisingly late own goal against Japan. The tournament ended on a high after winning their third-placed playoff against Germany – their first win against them in 31 years. This achievement is especially notable as it eclipses the efforts of England’s men at World Cups since 1966 – their best is still finishing fourth in 1990.
A change in culture
With BT Sport broadcasting live WSL (Women’s Super League) games and the successes of the international team drawing a wide interest, women’s football in England is continuing on an upward spiral.
Domestically, women’s football in England is never going to overtake the money-printing machine that is the Premier League, but its growth since the inaugural season in 2011 has been remarkable. A bounce in interest came after the 2015 World Cup as match attendance rose 29 percent compared to before the tournament. Not only has this appetite for the women’s game sustained, but it continued to grow in 2016, where the average attendance was up five percent year-on-year, and twelve clubs over the two divisions enjoyed double digit growth.
A good measure for success
For a player to be included in their national team’s squad for a major tournament is a sure sign of their quality. Looking at where these elite players choose to play domestically is, therefore, a valuable gauge of the quality of domestic leagues.
While the threat of a CBA might be having an effect, the current US squad features three players who have left the US, including captain Carli Lloyd who recently moved to Manchester City. Another high-profile name, Alex Morgan, regarded by many to be the best female player in the world, has also left the US for Olympique Lyonais.
In contrast, the current England squad features just one US player, Rachel Daly, who plays outside of England domestically. It is a small example, but it is a clear demonstration that, despite their highly-developed youth system, at a senior level, American players are increasingly feeling they are better served moving to Europe to continue their development.
Now recognised as one of the top international teams, England’s ladies are looking to build on their recent successes to continue boosting the profile of the women’s game in the UK. In preparation for the European Championships in the summer, March 2017 saw the England women’s team taking part in the SheBelieves Cup. Despite late goals resulting in defeat against France, England’s second match was a remarkable affair as they defeated the world’s top-ranked team, the USA, with a late winner from Ellen White.
Simply being eligible for such a competition proves that England are closing the gap between themselves and those teams at the pinnacle of the international game. Potential stagnation in the US and domestic players getting the opportunity to play against a higher calibre of players on a weekly basis, can only accelerate their development and make England stronger at international level.
Courtesy of Further.