Billy Witz has a nice piece up about how the USA Women winning the World Cup tomorrow could be bad for the team and the women's program in the long run.
However, I don't agree with all of it. Yes, I do think the USA is now relying more on athleticism instead of skill to squeeze out wins against teams who have advanced their programs at a faster rate, but I guess I have more faith than Billy in Pia Sundhage. Granted, Billy says Pia has the right temperament for the squad, but doesn't explain beyond that.
I think Pia has recognized what are the strengths of the current USA program and tried to work within that context, while at the same time, she has also tried to bring more skill into the USA squad.
Rapinoe and Cheney, probably among the most skilled players currently on the squad, are Pia's additions to the roster, and she has trusted both to make a difference when it really matters. Wambach is a useful warrior, but Pia proved she can get the team to win without Wambach in the 2008 Olympics. I think Pia's basically overseeing a transition period for the USWNT squad, and yes, she is looking to bring up more skilled youngsters like Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath to the forefront as time and her future contract status allows. Basically, I think Pia's doing a decent job with the talent currently at hand.
Yet I also think it's a convenient sort of nostalgia to believe that Mia Hamm, Akers, et al, were so amazing as players because the USWNT trampled over the majority of teams in an era when most other women's programs were basically pitiful. The USA women didn't suddenly get less graceful and more brutish - other teams got a heck of a lot better. It happened even before Hamm left, too, which is why the USA didn't make the final in 2003. Even going back to that 1999 victory, it wasn't exactly a sporting vision of the beautiful game in full glory, given that the USA didn't manage a goal from the run of play.
Basically, what Barcelona and Spain do at their best is very difficult. It's a worthy goal, of course, one destined to usually improve a team's play even if they don't reach it. Japan's improvement can probably largely be based in its pursuit of that model. It's not the only way to play or win, however. It also isn't the best fit for other teams that are talented in different ways.
Soccer is soccer. What works shouldn't necessarily be condemned for not being pretty enough. While I agree that long-term development of skill will help the USA stay at the top of the increasingly competitive women's game, so will speed, strength, hustle and sheer determination.To me, if the USA Women win Sunday, it will in some ways be the most meaningful championship of all, because it has come in a new era of parity and rankings be damned, a dawning awareness that they are not the best by leaps and bounds. It's a real dogfight to be the top dog now, and if and when they are champions, they will have truly earned it over worthy rivals.