clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why is the USWNT player pool still so small?

Despite significant turnover in the last 12 months, roster openings are as scarce as ever. Why is it so hard for new names to enter the ranks?

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

If you haven't checked in on the US Women's National Team since last summer, you might be surprised at the number of new names on the roster which will be heading to Rio for the Olympics. Gone are the likes of Abby Wambach, Lauren Holiday, Amy Rodriguez, and Christie Rampone. In their place, emerging talents like Crystal Dunn, Mallory Pugh, Lindsey Horan, and Emily Sonnett.

Historically, the turnover between WWC and Olympic rosters - separated by just one year - has been pretty small. But this time, we're in the midst of a real changing of the guard, with old stalwarts hanging up their cleats, to be replaced by the next generation.

Still, for all that, it's important not to lose sight of a deeper truth: this kind of turnover is significant, but only in relative terms. The absolute movement is still quite small. Even with these big shifts, the USWNT has only seen 32 players earn a cap over the last calendar year. Compare that to the men's side, where the number is 62, almost twice as many.

That's a huge difference, and it's worth digging into just what's going on here, because it touches on a number of hot topics in the sport today, from economic to legal to tactical.

A forced change of guard

The underlying reality here is that players almost never exit the national team for reasons internal to the game: performance, injury, tactics. The causes of roster changes, that is, are almost exclusively exogenous: retirement (Abby Wambach, Lauren Holiday, Shannon Boxx, Lori Chalupny, Christie Rampone), pregnancy (Sydney Leroux, Amy Rodriguez), and injury (Megan Rapinoe).

The departure of those eight players has opened up eight new spots--hence the new names on the roster.  But those new slots didn't really generate any additional competition. The transition was virtually instantaneous, with new names quickly engraving themselves just as deeply as the old ones had been. As a result, the structure of the team remains virtually identical: a small group of players, whose spots are virtually guaranteed as long as they want them. Individual names do change, but usually only once, and roster flux is held to a bare minimum from game to game.

So why does this happen? Is the women's game so different from the men's that the normal tactical and strategic factors that produce roster movement don't apply? Are there not dips in form, loss of focus, nagging injuries, tactical limitations?

Once upon a time, in the early years of the USWNT, this might have been plausible. With a small pool of dedicated players, training together, without a viable professional league, it wasn't hard to believe that such continuity was reasonable. But in 2016, with a strong and stable professional league producingmuch larger pool of potential players, the situation demands a bit more scrutiny.

Put simply: with all the development throughout the women's game, why has the structure of the national team pool remained so stable?

The economics of roster stability

As with many things these days, it's impossible to think about this question without talking about pay structure. We are pretty familiar these days with the basic outline--US Soccer subsidization of national teamers in the NWSL--and the broad inequalities that result from that arrangement.  But this system also has a reinforcing effect. The simple reality is that US Soccer is already committed to footing the bill for a full squad; anyone outside that list who earns a cap creates a new line on the expense sheets. From their perspective, it makes no sense to pay a player you're not using, or to grow your expenses by cycling through bubble players and having to put them on salary.

But the economic considerations aren't just about costs; they're also about revenue. Again, from the perspective of US Soccer, the national team sells a lot better than the domestic game. And they have every incentive to milk what they can from the popularity of the USWNT.  That means putting the stars on the field.

At the level of individual players, this success can create a closed feedback loop. Once a player is settled in the national team, she cultivates star power, which solidifies her presence even more and makes it all the harder for anyone else to break in.

This effect is particularly strong for the USWNT, which earns a level of emotional investment on the part of its fans that differs in both tenor and affect from the men's team. Broadly speaking, the WNT fan base tends to be far less mercenary about its support. Supporters often develop closer personal associations with the players, and a connected sense of protectiveness toward them as well. The kind of affinity this produces is of a different sort than is common on the men's side. Widespread anger about Landon Donovan being left off the 2014 World Cup roster is a notable exception to this rule, but notable precisely because it was somewhat uncommon. More often, out-of-form players who are left off the roster produce little more than a shrug of the shoulders or a simple ‘good riddance.'

Again, this is a generalization, one which obviously obscures many fans on either side that differ from the norm. And I certainly don't mean to characterize either approach as intrinsically 'better' or 'worse.' My point is simply to note a different flavor of fandom, one which generates additional incentives toward roster stability on the women's side.

These cost and revenue considerations are further magnified by the broader economics of the USWNT. Since its pay structures depend so heavily on the revenue produced by exhibition games, there is far less freedom to treat a given friendly as simply an opportunity to test experimental squads or alternate formations.  As much as you might want to try out a B/C squad, get a look at some new faces, or even just give the stars a rest, there is real concern that fans won't turn up unless the stars will be playing. The men's side operates under no such restraints; if only 7000 turn up to watch an experimental team get crushed by Sweden, no harm no foul. If the women did the same, the consequences might be significant.

Strategic realities

While these economic considerations impose significant limits on roster flux, it's important not to overstate the case here. The powers that be in US Soccer might not countenance a wholesale experimental squad, but neither is the broad stability of the team fundamentally a creation of the marketing department. Ultimately, team selection is under the coach's control. So it's also worth considering the potential strategic factors at work here.

First, and most simply, it's not surprising that successful teams are more stable than mediocre ones. And there are few teams in world soccer even close to as successful as the USWNT.

Second, even with the persistent growth of the women's game, it's quite clear that the available talent pool is far larger on the men's side. Combine this with the fact that the women's team is significant better in relative terms than their male counterparts, and you have a recipe for some degree of stratification.

Put simply: the men's team needs to experiment more, since assessing the relative quality is a bigger priority. On the women's side, the big questions tend to be more about formations and tactics--how to best maximize the performance of superstars--and less about roster construction per se. And, generally speaking, this has produced solid results. We are talking about the #1 team in the world, after all.

The appropriate comparison, then, might not be the USMNT, but rather dominant men's sides, like the Spanish team of 2008-2014 or the German team of the past few years. While those squads are also more permeable than the USWNT, they share the same broad tendency toward stability.

Given that, the real topic of concern here isn't really the short-term strength of the team (which is not in doubt), but rather the long-term trends in women's soccer and the national team.

New incentives for US Soccer?

What we've seen so far is that the economic and strategic incentives stack together. Even if the raw differences in talent between the 20th and 30th best player aren't intrinsically all that big, the current economic structures push US Soccer toward building a smaller and more stable team. Further, once that tight group is formed, the differences tend to lock into place, since those who are initially tracked into the national team are given access to better training, better coaching, better quality teammates with whom to practice, and the economic support necessary to sustain those advantages. They also develop fan followings. And while risk of public backlash is unlikely to drive significant decisions, it could very well tip the balance on marginal choices. In effect, even if the gap between 20th and 30th is initially not particularly large, the structure of the system tends to encourage separation.

It's important to understand that all these effects do have real rational bases. From the perspective of US Soccer, there were good reasons for setting things up in this fashion. Given limited resources, maximizing the talent of a small pool was a better bet than spreading benefits more widely.

The question is whether those reasons still continue to hold in the same way, or whether new incentives might be taking over. After all, women's soccer in 2016 is more popular than ever. It features a stable domestic league in its fourth year. The pool of young and talented players trying to play their way into the team grows each year.

Under these conditions, it's time to start thinking seriously about a new model, one which features an expanded player pool and more fluidity at the edges of the national team. One which stops thinking about the NWSL primarily as a "minor-league operation" whose primary purpose is to keep the small pool of national team stars fresh, and more as genuine league worth sustaining for its own sake.  One which recognizes the synergy between a strong national team and a strong domestic system. One which distributes benefits as widely as possible.

Time for change

The USWNT is currently operating within a system designed for a previous world: one of tiny talent pools and limited resources. But looking forward, there's reason to be far more optimistic. As the NWSL develops, as more money filters into women's soccer, the old models make less and less sense. We may not quite have reached the tipping point yet, but it's coming.

It would be too much to ask for immediate, wholesale reconfiguration of the system. The economics of women's soccer are still fragile, after all, and rocking the boat too aggressively could conceivably threaten the financial (and competitive) success of the WNT. But in the long-term, change is inevitable. And it's in the interest of everyone involved (from fans to players to officials) to help usher in a new, more modern, more sustainable model for the US women's squad.

With negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement imminent, and without a major international tournament on the horizon until 2019, there's never been a better time to initiate that process.