Over the last few days three competing facts have been rolling around in my head. The USWNT have won bronze in the Olympics, the USWNT didn’t play very well outside of the bronze medal match, and the fanbase of the USWNT needs a recalibration.
Admittedly, the question of why everything Tokyo is marketed as "2020" when it’s 2021 is rolling around in there too... but marketing, right?
I understand why fans of the USWNT are unaccustomed with living in a world of reality. It’s been a lot of champagne problems and caviar dinners post-victory. They are the single most successful women’s national team since the 1st FIFA World Championship for Women's Football for the M&M's Cup (they didn’t want to call it the Women’s World Cup back then because sexism). They won it all in 1991, came in third in 1995, won again in 1999, had back-to-back third place finishes in 2003 and 2007, came up just short in 2011 with a second place finish and won back to back titles in 2015 and 2019. On the Olympic side it was gold in 1996, silver in 2000, three straight golds in 2004, 2008, 2012 before being bounced in 2016 and the aforementioned bronze in 2021 (no matter how much the IOC wants it to be 2020).
In fifteen tries at a medal the US have managed to nab fourteen of them, only failing to capture a medal in 2016. Germany is the second most decorated team with seven; Sweden have six; Brazil and Norway both have four. Japan and the newest Olympic gold medalist team in Canada have three. China has two and the Netherlands and England have one each. That is a lot of winning and a lot of years of fans building up the expectation that the USWNT will win.
The side effect of all that winning is this: around the time of each major tournament a group of new fans find their way under the tent, people who have wandered away from the tent rejoin, or people who have stayed in the tent are caught up in the excitement of major tournaments all over again. The nearly thirty-six year old tent is built on almost universal domination over much of that time.
I am not here to tell USWNT fans that losing is good or noble or somehow they should be happy to see the team play poorly. As someone who both is a fan of the team and who has spent nearly six years covering the team I am never going to be happy with sub-par play. However, being unhappy the USWNT played poorly but still medaled is very different from thinking a bronze medal is a failure in and of itself, or that a bronze medal means the USWNT must be torn apart and rebuilt again, or even that the USWNT is a shit team.
Vlatko Andonovski did not cover himself in glory this Olympics. He became the USWNT head coach just before the pandemic really took hold in the world and it was clear this impacted both his preparation and the Olympics themselves. There are legitimate questions to be asked around his starting lineups and substation patterns as well as how he built the roster. But calls from over-eager fans to see him summarily fired point - in large part though not exclusively - toward a fanbase who is used to winning in any conditions no matter who lines up across from them.
The days of the USWNT always being bigger, stronger, and faster than any team in the world are gone. England has a league that is becoming more and more on-par with the NWSL. Spain has a wave of youth coming up that rivals the talent moving though the US system. The level of coaching all over the world is getting better and better - Sarina Wiegman heading to England and Mark Parsons heading to the Netherlands stick out among some great recent coaching moves. And now Canada has tasted gold.
It is going to be harder now. That is good. Some of the stalwarts of the current USWNT are getting far closer to the end of their careers than they are to the middle of them; change is painful but needed for the program to keep growing. The USWNT has the money, player pool and domestic league to keep moving forward and win. Maybe not as often as before. Maybe they might have a World Cup and Olympics back-to-back and they are left out of the top three, but that doesn’t mean the golden era of women’s soccer is over - it means it’s beginning.
It’s been said that Europe or Japan or once-upon-a-time China would overtake the USWNT and leave them in the dust for nearly as long as the USWNT has put on uniforms and taken the field. Be prepared fans, because the games will be harder. The wins may come less often but they will be sweeter when they do. Dynasties don't last forever but new generations of USWNT players will build their own. So if Sam Kerr or Vivianne Miedema or Stina Blackstenius lift a World Cup trophy or have a gold put around their neck at the Olympics, it isn’t the end of the USWNT. It's just another sign women’s soccer is growing up.