Heath’s sentiment is an understandable, romantic one, a desire to see a variety of approaches in the latter rounds, but it may be a forlorn hope. It is hard to see why, for example, the dynamic of the modern women’s game should be any different in this regard from the men’s, where Europe’s pre-eminence now goes unchallenged. No team from outside Europe has won the World Cup since 2002; that Brazil victory was the only break in a run of European success that dates to 1990.
The reason for that, the authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Sczymanski suggest in their book “Soccernomics,” is the “dense network of talent and ideas” that Europe boasts. Proximity, internecine competition and porous borders — both literal and intellectual — mean concepts and innovations travel much more freely, and much more quickly, between European nations. They push each other on to greater things.
Success in modern men’s soccer, they say, depends now on how closely connected you are to that central network; so Portugal, for example, might be a relatively small nation, but it is sufficiently well-connected to benefit from the network in a way that Japan or Australia, say, are not. South America, formerly an opposing pole, now keeps up only by supplying players to, and borrowing ideas from, Europe.
Should Europe’s clubs keep investing in women’s soccer, it is entirely feasible that the same phenomenon might happen, with the standard of play not only rising exponentially but the nature of the game — the tactical approach, the style of play — shifting a little, too, as ideas are traded and developed.
That, in turn, raises a pressing question for the United States: how, precisely, to respond? The college system has formed the bedrock of the most successful program in women’s soccer’s history for the last 20 years. Can it compete with a fully professionalized Europe? Can it keep pace with a game that is ever-changing, ever-growing, an ocean away? Can an emphasis on athleticism and power and the conviction that comes from a gilded history endure a fundamental tactical shift? Rapinoe is right. Whether this week ends in American glory or heartbreak, the United States has its work cut out. The next few days are only the start.