On Eve of World Cup Semifinal, Clock Is Already Ticking on U.S.

PARIS — Even in the first flush of victory, Megan Rapinoe could see the warning signs.

The United States had made it to the World Cup semifinals, edging past France only a few minutes before. The American team, women’s soccer’s great hegemon, had seen off the host, the team identified as the biggest threat to its hopes of retaining its world championship, the one side that has seemed, in recent years, to be a match for the Americans.

The victory was yet further proof of the tremendous psychological strength of Rapinoe and her teammates, their inner resolve, their unyielding confidence. And yet it offered another lesson, too, one that — even in the hubbub of America’s celebrations — came through loud and clear.

“It is no secret we have to get better on the ball,” Rapinoe said. “Playing better with it, better offensively, better in our possession and our passing. The level is just growing every day in the women’s game. England was super-clinical the other night. So we absolutely have our work cut out for us.”

The rise of Western Europe as a force in women’s soccer has been the central theme of this World Cup. Seven of the eight teams that reached the quarterfinals were European; three of them — England, Sweden and the Netherlands, the reigning European champion — have joined the Americans in the semifinals. As Vivianne Miedema, the Dutch striker, said earlier in the tournament, sometimes it has felt “like a European Championship.”

That impression will diminish, of course, if — as expected — the United States overcomes England in Lyon on Tuesday and then sees off whoever it faces in the final to claim a fourth World Cup.

The United States remains women’s soccer’s gold standard, its sole superpower, home to the best-financed program and the deepest pool of players. Though both Spain, in the round of 16, and France, in that hotly anticipated quarterfinal, have run the defending champions close, the United States has found enough to win through on both occasions: a fortunate penalty against the Spanish, a ruthless counterattack against the French. The combined might of Europe’s coming force has not yet knocked the Americans from their perch.

England, the old-world nation that has invested most heavily in its team, is up next. But even if the United States survives that test, and the final, it would not render the evidence of the last month or so irrelevant. It would not stop the European charge. It would simply prove that the United States remains ahead, for now.

What has been most striking, of course, is the identity of the teams that have emerged as genuine threats to American primacy. Norway and Germany are longstanding powers in the women’s game, both former world champions. Sweden, too, is a regular challenger for this trophy.

The speed with which the likes of England and the Netherlands — as well as France, Spain and Italy — have caught up, though, has been eye-catching. This is only the second World Cup for the Dutch; England had never reached a semifinal before 2015. They might meet in the final this year.

The explanation for that success is, at first glance, remarkably simple. The well-financed national federations of developed countries that are forces in the men’s game have turned their resources and their expertise on to their women’s teams; the even richer clubs in those countries have invested yet further.

That has allowed players, for the most part, to turn professional. It has given them access to high-quality coaching, world-class facilities, state-of-the-art medical care.

It has also created a culture of excellence. The wages now available — and the infrastructure in place — have enabled Europe’s major clubs to gather together squads made up of the finest players in the world. Barcelona had 15 players in France for this tournament; Lyon, women’s soccer’s standard-bearer, 14. Chelsea and Manchester City dispatched 12, Bayern Munich 10, Paris St.-Germain and Arsenal nine each. “Look at France,” Marta, the Brazil forward, said before the two teams met in the last 16. “The base is entirely Lyon.”

It is not just that players improve with the level of competition on offer in Europe; it is that they are training in almost exclusively elite environments, too. Italy, perhaps the great breakout stars of this World Cup, had eight players in its squad from the women’s team at Juventus, which was established only two years ago.

“We get the chance to play for teams like Juventus and Milan,” said Sara Gama, the Italy captain and Juventus defender. “So we are getting better because we are training better. There is a lot yet to do, but the gap is getting closer with the other nations, and I think everybody can see that.”

It is shrinking at considerable speed, too. In less than a decade, the divide has gone from a chasm to the merest sliver. No wonder Rapinoe is of the view that the United States has to respond, and fast, if it is to maintain its supremacy for the rest of this summer, never mind beyond.

There are those, of course, who do not welcome the development. “As a football fan, to me, I would want to see a little bit more diversity at this point,” Tobin Heath, the United States forward, said. “I find European football sometimes a little boring.” It was “unfortunate,” she said, that teams with “this kind of different style” no longer remained in the tournament.

Heath’s sentiment is an understandable, romantic one, a desire to see a variety of approaches in the latter rounds, but it may be a forlorn hope. It is hard to see why, for example, the dynamic of the modern women’s game should be any different in this regard from the men’s, where Europe’s pre-eminence now goes unchallenged. No team from outside Europe has won the World Cup since 2002; that Brazil victory was the only break in a run of European success that dates to 1990.

The reason for that, the authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Sczymanski suggest in their book “Soccernomics,” is the “dense network of talent and ideas” that Europe boasts. Proximity, internecine competition and porous borders — both literal and intellectual — mean concepts and innovations travel much more freely, and much more quickly, between European nations. They push each other on to greater things.

Success in modern men’s soccer, they say, depends now on how closely connected you are to that central network; so Portugal, for example, might be a relatively small nation, but it is sufficiently well-connected to benefit from the network in a way that Japan or Australia, say, are not. South America, formerly an opposing pole, now keeps up only by supplying players to, and borrowing ideas from, Europe.

Should Europe’s clubs keep investing in women’s soccer, it is entirely feasible that the same phenomenon might happen, with the standard of play not only rising exponentially but the nature of the game — the tactical approach, the style of play — shifting a little, too, as ideas are traded and developed.

That, in turn, raises a pressing question for the United States: how, precisely, to respond? The college system has formed the bedrock of the most successful program in women’s soccer’s history for the last 20 years. Can it compete with a fully professionalized Europe? Can it keep pace with a game that is ever-changing, ever-growing, an ocean away? Can an emphasis on athleticism and power and the conviction that comes from a gilded history endure a fundamental tactical shift? Rapinoe is right. Whether this week ends in American glory or heartbreak, the United States has its work cut out. The next few days are only the start.

Rory Smith is the chief soccer correspondent, based in Manchester, England. He covers all aspects of European soccer and has reported from three World Cups, the Olympics, and numerous European tournaments. @RorySmith

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