Four years ago, after the USA were swept aside by Brazil in the Women's World Cup, I asked if future versions of the USA women's team were destined to be like Italy (men's team) -- a side that would always be among the favorites to win the World Cup but not winning every time -- or like Uruguay, which had its heyday in the early days of the sport but are no longer a factor in world soccer (2010 semifinal run aside). I never really answered the question, but I felt that the Italian experience were closer to the USA women's future. But in light of the performance of the national teams at junior and senior level over the past 18 months, I think there is another scenario to consider.
What if the future of the US women's soccer team parallels that of the West Indies cricket team?
I'm pretty sure that most of my readers know little about cricket in general or West Indies cricket in particular, so let me explain.
West Indies is a consortium of English-speaking Caribbean countries that dates back to the days when those countries were British colonies -- Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados, Guyana, the Leeward Islands (British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, St. Kitts and Nevis, Montserrat), and the Windward Islands (Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada). It is essentially the English-speaking minnows of CONCACAF combined into a regional side that is drawn from the separate national cricket teams of the aforementioned countries. The existence of West Indies in world cricket is very similar to the existence of the Home Countries in world soccer and dates back to the original foundations of the respective sporting bodies.
Cricket is very intertwined into English Caribbean history and culture, and there have always been good to outstanding cricket players in the region. But from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s the West Indies cricket team was absolutely dominant. They did not lose a Test series (usually three to five Test matches) for 15 years, at one point won 11 Test matches in a row, which was a world record until about ten years ago, and went 27 Test matches unbeaten (a record that still stands). They had scarily-talented batsmen and bowlers with the swagger and intimidation to match, and they attracted admirers from all over the cricket world.
By the early 1990s the big stars of West Indies cricket had retired, and even though there were still talented players with the bat and the ball, it was clear that the regional team was not as dominating as they once were. Moreover, there were warning signs that were starting to appear in the team's off-field preparation, on-field professionalism, and the quality of the newer talent. But as long as the team was winning, very little change was going to be made.
And then came the home series loss to Australia in 1995.
Not only did that series mark the end of an era in world cricket -- the first series loss by the West Indies anywhere in the world for 15 years -- it also marked the beginning of the West Indies' decline. It was amazing how one event can expose all of the cracks in a sporting team, but that's exactly what happened. Suddenly, the Caribbean cricket authorities became aware of an aging team with an antiquated and subpar talent identification and development system, the poor state of facilities throughout the region, the declining levels of discipline and on-field skills in the squad, and the contentious relations between players, selectors, and the national cricket associations. Competition from other sports such as basketball, track and field, and football didn't help either, but I don't believe that it was a highly contributing factor. At any rate, the decline from the top of world cricket was swift and brutal, as the West Indies suffered a series of humiliating defeats over the next ten years. The current team has appeared to stabilize themselves, but they are a very long way from recovering the type of play that distinguished them during their glory days, and it is very possible that they will never reach that level again.
So, what does all this have to do with the USA women's national team?
The US women have been a dominant force in women's soccer since the beginning of official international competition. At their peak, they had world-class players at almost every position, and a number of those players were the undisputed best players in the world. They won two Women's World Cups and three Olympic golds, almost all of them with a significant part of the original pioneering generation (Akers, Gabarra, Hamm, Lilly, Foudy, Milbrett, Chastain, Scurry et al). Their results since 2003 have been mixed -- they won the Olympic gold twice but failed to win the World Cup twice. In both World Cup semifinals they were shut out by their opponents in different ways (the match against Germany was closer than the final score, but the Americans were never in the game against Brazil). Yet in the year immediately following a Women's World Cup that the USA lost, they regrouped to win in the Olympics. So is this really a side apparently on the brink of a decline?
There are some very important differences between the USA women and the West Indies men, of course. For one, there is a much larger population from which to select an 18- to 22-player squad. The economic might of the United States allows the national teams -- and the other teams and organizations in the US soccer pyramid -- to construct world-class training and preparation facilities. There is competition from other sports, to be sure, but not as many for women seeking a professional sports career as there is for the men.
At the same time, there are a few similarities that should give American soccer administrators some pause. Both the US Soccer Federation and the West Indies Cricket Board, in my opinion, allowed their national teams to become too sclerotic for too long. To give one example, the 2007 World Cup side contained more over-30 players than any other team at the finals (six). Both were motivated to keep their stars in the national team for as long as possible in order to milk one more title from the squad, which had its short-term benefits but ultimately served counter-productive to its long term future. Both became complacent by success and blinded to evolutions in the world game, from improvements in fitness and match preparation, to the tactical maturity of more of the leading teams. Lastly, they were able to deceive themselves into thinking that perhaps there was not a decline after all, only to be shocked by results some time later. Even after the West Indies lost that historic series to Australia, they advanced to the semifinal of the Cricket World Cup in 1997 and they defeated India and England at home. It was the 5-0 series whitewash to South Africa in 1999 that really set off the shockwaves throughout the region.
One could say that the 2-1 loss to Mexico in the recently concluded qualifiers was a similar shock to US women's soccer, but I would disagree with that assessment. It was a surprise to be sure, and it attracted more media attention to the national team than in recent times, but ultimately the USA qualified for the World Cup finals. In my opinion, what would be truly shocking to US women's soccer is if the national team failed to get out of its group at the World Cup finals, and then failed to win an Olympic medal in London. If those two events were to come to pass, the handwringing would be intense and more than a few commentators would find themselves shocked. But they need not be. The warning signs have been there for some time in previous international competitions at all levels. The US soccer hierarchy would have chosen to ignore them.
Sunil Gulati said that there would be a review of US soccer's talent development programs in the wake of the qualifiers, but that there should not be an overhaul because of one loss. I agree. However I believe that a frank assessment of the talent identification and development networks and their impact on the tactical and technical knowledge of their product is overdue, from early youth to college level. The longer that discussion is delayed, the date of the truly shocking event in US women's soccer draws closer.