They’re a sisterhood. They’re taliswomen for the soccer mom voting bloc. They’re symbols of female strength and pride who are role models to girls across America. And they’re really, really overrated.
The U.S. women’s soccer team is thought of, when thought of at all, as an ever-replenishing Dream Team that sweeps away all in its path. That’s hogwash. While the “girls of summer” have done a lot for women’s sports, Mia Hamm and Co. simply haven’t won anything of consequence in a long while. The U.S. team has yet to win the two biggest prizes in women’s soccer—the Olympics and the Women’s World Cup—this century. They’ve had more success in the third-most prominent tournament, Portugal’s annual Algarve Cup. But only a handful of fans know that the Algarve Cup exists. Since their breakthrough World Cup title in 1999, the U.S. has come up small under the bright lights.
From 1996-99, the U.S. women were at the peak of their powers. They also got the benefit of some home cooking. In the 1999 World Cup final against China at the Rose Bowl, keeper Briana Scurry clearly moved before a penalty kick was taken, an obvious violation of the rules. The resulting save stood and was the difference when Brandi Chastain scored her famous goal moments later. Since then, the team has lost to scrappy but inferior Norway in the gold medal match in Sydney; turned in a stiff and confused effort in the 2003 World Cup, getting embarrassed by Germany in the semifinals; and forfeited good will by foisting a mismanaged professional league, the WUSA, upon an unwilling and uncaring populace.
For all the handwringing over the world catching up to the United States in basketball, the fact that America has fallen back to the pack in women’s soccer is far more surprising. The United States enjoys greater resources at both the grassroots and the elite levels than any other female footballing nation. Yet the best player in the world isn’t even American anymore—she’s a German, Birgit Prinz.
The United States has struggled ever since the retirement of Michelle Akers in 2000. The team’s much-hyped quintet of stars—Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett, Kristine Lilly, and Chastain—have grown old, and only powerhouse striker Abby Wambach has stepped up to replace them. For the U.S. team to maintain its elite status, the other players from the new generation—Cat Reddick, Heather Mitts, and Heather O’Reilly—need to prove they can dominate on the international level.
While the U.S. team isn’t off to a cracking start—give them credit for beating Brazil while playing terribly for much of the game—Germany looks ominously good, having pulverized 1999 World Cup finalists China 8-0. The winners of the last World Cup have to be the favorites, with Sweden a strong No. 2. Neither team has any players with strong name recognition or anyone who’s likely to whip off her shirt after a key goal—they’re simply better than the United States.