This summer’s World Cup in Brazil represented the evolution of the United States’ relationship with soccer – the group stage match between the USMNT and Portugal had more viewers domestically than last year’s World Series or NBA finals. Tim Howard’s performance against Belgium made him a national hero. But now that Germany has claimed the crown and national team stars have returned to their club teams across the globe, the focus shifts to qualifying for the world’s women’s teams. And for fans of US soccer, this side happens to be vastly more successful in international play than their male counterparts.
So if you were looking for the intensity of a World Cup final with your home country fighting for the title, stick around for the women’s tournament next summer. You will likely get to see it. The US Women’s National team has finished second, third, third, and first in the last four women’s World Cups. The USWNT is the team. Since 2003, their lowest place in the FIFA world rankings was a staggering second. They won the Olympic tournament in 2004, 2008, and 2012. Other than a few months spread out over the last eleven years, they’ve been, literally, number one.
USWNT players lead the way in terms of individual records as well. Forward Abby Wambach is ranked first in all players, male or female, from every country that has ever fielded an international side, with 167 international goals (and counting) in her career. Captain Christie Rampone in the only US player to represent their nation in four Olympic tournaments. Her appearance at this World Cup would mark her fifth bid for a world title. Goalkeeper Hope Solo is looking for her record breaking 72nd international shutout.
Other veterans like Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger will join younger talents such as Tobin Heath and Alex Morgan to round out the team.
So, what’s the problem? The USWNT is immensely talented, with a deep roster consisting of both youth and experience. 2015 could be their year.
Turf is the problem. All of the stadiums selected for the tournament (hosted in Canada) feature artificial turf in place of grass. While these surfaces are certainly hardier in terms of their ability to endure under harsh weather conditions, they present a fundamental problem to the way the game is meant to be played. Both physically and mentally, turf limits players. Either they finish a game covered in cuts, scrapes, and bruises, in the midst of a month-long tournament, or they spend 90 minutes unable to commit to diving tackles and leaping headers. Neither of these are appropriate options for elite athletes. Abby Wambach told the New York Times that she won’t be “going in for a diving header like van Persie did, no way.” (Referring to the Netherland’s Robin van Persie’s sensational goal against Spain in the group stages).
Turf means that the leading all-time international goal-scorer can’t play the game at the level she’s capable, and that in and of itself should be enough to necessitate a change. So far, it hasn’t been.
“It’s a gender issue, through and through,” Wambach explained, reminding us that no major men’s tournament has ever been played on turf, with good reason. FIFA would never ask the Messis, Neymars, and Cristiano Ronaldos of the world to sacrifice their ability to accommodate the field’s surface, and it’s ludicrous to ask women’s teams to.
(USWNT forward Sydney LeRoux’s leg after a game on turf- twitter.com)
Despite support from other athletes (LeBron James, Kevin Durant) and academy-award winning actors (Tom Hanks!), letters to FIFA asking for reconsideration and threats by the players to boycott the tournament have gone unanswered, but as qualifying begins and summer inches closer, either a change will have to be made or FIFA will have to host a tournament filled with far less skill than it should be.