[Posted May 5, 2023] From the moment women’s international soccer formalized itself, during the 1980s, The American Way has prevailed. This not-so-controversial historical judgment has traditionally held water on the two fronts that matter most:

  • In the competitive crucible, the U.S. Women’s National Team has proved the finest side in the world for more than 30 years. It has won four of the eight World Cups contested since the tournament was launched, in 1991. The USWNT also claimed four Olympic gold medals over the same span.
  • In terms of elite talent development, the U.S. collegiate system has played a central role in enabling this competitive success. American universities have turned out a remarkably steady stream of superstars and otherwise top-notch U.S. internationals over the course of four decades. What’s more, these programs also trained up hundreds more national team stars/stalwarts who just happen to hail from, and ultimately represent, other footballing nations around the world.

These truisms and several more undergird Dr. Andrei Markovits’ seminal study of the women’s game, Women in American Soccer and European Football: Different Paths to Shared Glory. Published in 2019 (and reviewed by Soccer America here), this book predated a whole host of subsequent, massive developments in women’s international soccer. Accordingly, Markovits updated and re-published the volume last month. Full disclosure, Markovits and I share a publisher: Dickinson-Moses Press.

The timing of this reissue is rather obviously exquisite: The 2023 Women’s World Cup gets underway, Down Under, come July. Markovits’ book places that event in excellent historical context, but he also leads readers to a speculative-but-reasonable-and-provocative takeaway: Today’s U.S.-dominated status quo would appear to stand on the verge of great change. Radical change. In fact, this summer’s tournament may well reveal an all-new balance of power in the women’s game.

The premises underlying of Women in American Soccer and European Football remain elemental: Despite coming late to the party (the USWNT was not formed until 1985), American women have been encouraged to pursue soccer opportunities relatively free of stigma or structural barriers. Thanks to Title IX and other cultural factors — including the fact that men’s soccer didn’t mainstream itself until the early 1990s, the subject of my recently published soccer history, Generation Zero — the sport quickly became the country’s most popular participatory sport for women.

It’s been a very different story across the pond, however, where European women have been fighting for a place in futbol — one of the most stubbornly misogynistic aspects of Euro culture, according to Markovits — since the late 19th century. Only in the new Millennium has European culture embraced the women’s game. In the book’s new Epilogue, Markovits identifies last summer’s 2022 European Championships as a pivotal moment, one where Euro-Skepticism re. women’s futbol would appear to have completely lifted.

Here’s how the streams of these very different evolutions may well cross, in Australia and New Zealand this summer, with compelling results for the game going forward:

History has demonstrated that elite talent development is best handled by professional soccer clubs, not universities. This system of club-owned and -operated academies emerged, in Europe, as state of the art during the 1950s. Over time, impressed by European results, other regions, nations and clubs have adopted these structural practices lock, stock and barrel. For example, those clubs that dominate the world’s second most influential futbol culture, South America’s, develop young talent in exactly the same way today.

Even national federations, inclusive of the U.S. Soccer Federation, have mimicked the academy model to develop young-adult players, regardless of gender. However, these academies are primarily creatures of the club world. Wherever club soccer has matured, club-administered academies develop young prospects to their best potential — even if said prospects eventually move to European academies to further hone their craft.

In his newly reissued volume, Dr. Markovits details how long and hard European women have fought to gain access to this development system — to all the amenities and cultural cachet attached to club futbol in Europe.

However, for reasons better explained in Markovits’ 2001 book, Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism (written with Stephen Hellerman and published by Princeton University Press), the U.S. soccer community didn’t buy into this academy model much at all — not until the 21st century. Today, each and every Major League Soccer club operates at least one academy to develop young players; most have several academies under their direct or shared administration. Most global observers believe the U.S. Men’s National Team has never been so awash in young, world-class talent. Maturation of an American academy system is the reason why.

Yet women’s soccer in America has not followed suit. Why? Because without viable clubs, the academy model doesn’t work. The first two attempts at women’s professional club soccer here in North America died on the vine. The most recent attempt, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), launched in 2012 and looks like the strongest iteration yet. (Until 2020, the NWSL was in fact administered by the U.S. Soccer Federation.) Third time’s a charm? This stab may prove the lasting league presence women’s professional soccer in North America desperately needs.

Yet none of these NWSL clubs have the money to spend on academy systems. Not in 2023.

European women may have struggled to gain access to futbol infrastructure and cultural acceptance prior to 2010. But when they did break through, they immediately availed themselves of far more robust and sophisticated club and development models. Markovits is careful not to choose or endorse one system over another. But I’ll say out loud what he does not: This entrenched academy culture gives the European women’s game a long-term advantage over its North American counterpart. Indeed, these “Different Paths to Shared Glory” may have already tilted the balance of power in women’s soccer.

Most of the top women’s club teams today, in Europe, are attached to massively rich clubs with built-in academy systems and the money to found, fund and support women soccer — clubs and academies — over the long term. Olympique Lyonnaise, FC Barcelona, Arsenal, Bayer Leverkeusen: These clubs were already committed to and experienced in the training up of young players according to the academy model. Over the last decade, said academies have turned out a steady, ever-widening stream of technically stellar, competitively mature female players who have, in turn, stocked national teams with talent levels never before seen in Europe.

Holland used to be an also-ran in at Women’s World Cups. At France 2019, they gained the final. Spain, France and reigning European Champion England now stand toe to toe with a once-dominant German side.

All of these sides will stand toe-to-toe with the Americans Down Under.

This new cohort of academy-trained European players is also positioned to perhaps do something more: unseat the United States as hegemon of the women’s game going forward. Why? Because until the NWSL can create academies, the U.S. remains utterly dependent on a collegiate soccer apparatus to develop young talent.

Let’s give credit where credit is due: In the absence of an academy system, university-level athletics in America has provided, and will continue to provide, the next-best thing. There is a reason U.S. universities are continually stocked with foreign-born athletes: The training they receive here — on American soil, at American colleges — often outpaces the training they could hope to receive in their native countries. This is true across a wide spectrum of sports, not just soccer. There is no academy system serving women’s hockey players in Finland, for example. And so, young female Finns flock to U.S. college programs for elite developmental training, as The New York Times detailed in its story posted Feb. 24. “I read that hockey piece in The Times and immediately thought of Bend it Like Beckham,” Markovits wrote to me. “It shows so well how European women came to play their serious soccer in American colleges which — pursuant to your view of things — should henceforth diminish big time, because they will all now play at European clubs!”

This much seems clear: Where academy systems do exist, the university model cannot compete. How could it? Even the finest college programs provide training only 4 months out of 12. Who orchestrates and presides over that training represents another key differentiator.

“Very few college [soccer] coaches have hailed from the world of professional soccer, and fewer still have played the game at a level performed by the top leagues and teams in the world,” Markovits and Hellerman wrote in Offside. “It is universally accepted that the years of age between 18 and 22 are totally critical in the development of skills necessary for playing soccer at its highest level. Spending those years in NCAA soccer simply does not suffice for establishing those skills.”

These assertions were published in 2001. Markovits and Hellerman were largely referring to the state of men’s soccer development in America. The academy model didn’t yet exist here, not for men nor women. Nearly two decades down the road, however, the development infrastructure serving U.S. men’s professional soccer has moved definitively away from the collegiate model, while the women’s game has moved not at all. Markovits newly updated book explains why that is, historically and culturally.

We should again emphasize that women’s college soccer is the primary reason the USWNT formed in 1985, then won the inaugural world title six years later. The American Way may well produce a fifth World Cup in Australia/New Zealand this summer. The squad remains strong, with several young stars supplementing the skill and charisma of accomplished veterans.

Over the long haul, however, it’s hard to see how the university model can compete with the club-sponsored academy model. The track record laid down by decades of men’s soccer proves this point rather convincingly, and it’s hard to identify a factor specific or peculiar to women’s soccer that might enable an exception.