American women are now sole flagship for U.S. Soccer
NEW ORLEANS -- The last time the U.S. women's national team visited this city, it bid farewell to an era and sent Abby Wambach off into the sunset, or at least the warm glow of the lights on Bourbon Street.
That final game of 2015, the last of Wambach's illustrious career, was also the final act of a year the U.S. women spent in the sporting spotlight. Tens of thousands of fans crossed the border to Canada and millions watched on TV as the United States reclaimed a World Cup trophy lost for 16 years.
If it ever dimmed, that spotlight has turned its full wattage back on the American women.
It's not because of one player, although captain and FIFA player of the year finalist Carli Lloyd is back after missing September games with an injury. And it's not because of recent dominance -- there was Olympic disappointment last summer followed by a mixed bag of wins and losses this year, mostly at home, against the best the rest of the world has to offer.
Because of the words on the giant promotional banners at the Superdome ahead of Thursday's game, a longstanding slogan will make a lot of people, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati among them, wince these days.
One nation. One team.
For at least the next few years, with apologies to the 2019 Gold Cup, that is almost literally true.
Only one senior national team still has the opportunity, its own qualification willing, to bring the nation together over a soccer game. There will be no World Cup in Russia for the American men next summer, but the American women have a World Cup in France to defend a year later.
For at least the next few years, it doesn't need the modifier women's soccer.
The women are American soccer on the international stage.
"I'm completely gutted for them," Lloyd said of her male counterparts. "A lot of those players will never play in another World Cup again, some of those older, veteran players. You can't help but feel tremendously bad for them. I think on so many different levels it affects us, it affects sponsors, it affects TV. But we're going to bounce back like we always do. ...
"And us women, we're going to continue to fight like we always do."
The recent failures of the U.S. men that reached a nadir on a soggy field in Trinidad & Tobago unleashed a wave of rants and laments about the sorry state of soccer mediocrity at the international level in this country. That led to reminders that there is, in fact, a U.S. team with three World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals. And like clockwork, those produced the familiarly snide retorts about a lack of depth in the women's game and other canards.
It is a familiar rinse-and-repeat cycle. What is different this time around is that the U.S. women are the only game in town. Since 1990 and 1991, when the U.S. men returned to the World Cup after a long hiatus and then the women won the first World Cup staged for women, the teams have taken turns in the spotlight -- each of seven World Cup appearances by the women, preceded a year earlier by an appearance from the men. Together they tracked a nation's interest, more than 19 million watching the men draw Portugal in 2014 and more than 25 million watching the women beat Japan for the title in 2015.
Always in tandem. Until now.
Any American games of consequence next year will be played by the women, albeit in a CONCACAF qualifying event, likely in October, far more condensed than the men's hexagonal and usually absent of suspense. (Though 2011, when the United States was forced to earn its World Cup bid via a playoff against Italy after a third-place CONCACAF finish, will not be forgotten.)
And the U.S. women -- who play South Korea on Thursday and then again on Sunday (ESPN, 2 p.m. ET) in Cary, North Carolina -- have plenty to accomplish in 2018. The team might have been better at times in the past, but it has rarely in recent times been younger or more intriguing. A search for new faces since the Olympics turned up Jane Campbell, Abby Dahlkemper, Sofia Huerta, Rose Lavelle, Casey Short, Taylor Smith (injured at the moment), Andi Sullivan and Lynn Williams. Extended auditions served Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Samantha Mewis and Mallory Pugh well. All are new faces since the 2015 World Cup.
"I'm not sure there is anybody else to unearth, to be honest," Megan Rapinoe said. "I think that the exploration period, the regrowth or rebuild, whatever you want to call it, is over now. We have the core of players, and now it's just about kind of bringing it all together. ... So I think it's time to really start dialing it in."
It also bears watching how members of the national team use any additional leverage their position as sole standard bearer affords them. It is unlikely anything as dramatic unfolds as in Europe, where Danish players are putting World Cup qualification on the line for fair pay. The Americans, after all, signed a new collective bargaining agreement this past spring. But this team hasn't been shy about speaking up for its own interests and other causes.
"I think that we can always be better as a federation," Rapinoe said. "And maybe this is the chance we needed to take a step back and re-evaluate the whole thing for both sides. Obviously you don't get that opportunity very much as long as everyone is successful in qualifying and the machine rolls on."
Rapinoe, while primarily sharing Lloyd's empathetic sentiments for men's players who missed out on the experience of a lifetime, also joked she had already told a few teammates that she knew what the federation could do with any unused money budgeted for Russia.
Whether for the embattled Gulati -- who received strong support from Lloyd, noting his role in the development of the NWSL and high-profile events such as the SheBelieves Cup and Four Nations Tournament -- or a successor as federation president, the women's team is potentially invaluable. It faces global competition from more and more countries willing to chase the standard it set. It faces many of the same development issues at home, pay-to-play among them, as the men.
But for a country that has never been more aware of soccer around the globe, the U.S. women have always represented the country's best chance to win. It's the only chance to win at the moment.
"Big picture, this sport is here to stay," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. "It's got a massive foothold in this country, so I don't think [the men failing to qualify] will damage us big picture.
"I think people are going to get behind a team, and now they get to get behind us."
One nation. For the next few years, one team.