Why this matters
The robust, resource-rich American collegiate system that has fueled men’s and women’s Olympic and national team development since the 1980s and has been used by athletes in the U.S. and from all around the world is thriving and has been joined by many worthy competitors for the globe’s women’s soccer talent pool.
The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup is expected to be deeply competitive, which is great news for soccer fans. While Fox’s promotional campaign for domestic viewers in the United States is pitching the tournament as USA vs. the World, this tournament has many viable contenders to hoist the trophy as world champions in August.
The main explanation for this growing competitive balance is the 21st-century expansion of opportunities for girls and women in soccer around the world. Cultural hurdles have been lowered, domestic league clubs have increased investment, and market demand has grown to help create a thriving women’s game.
Three countries – England, Spain, and Germany – all with top 10 global rankings, have beaten the No. 1 United States Women’s National Team since the start of 2022. And while we should not read too deeply into losses in friendlies, those matches do serve as an opportunity to investigate the multiple, healthy ecosystems in women’s soccer that have developed over the past two decades.
There has never been a better time to be a talented teenage soccer player, with multiple viable pathways to develop into a national team player and play in the World Cup. The robust, resource-rich American collegiate system that has fueled men’s and women’s Olympic and national team development since the 1980s and has been used by athletes in the U.S. and from all around the world is thriving. And, crucially, the American collegiate system has been joined by many worthy competitors for the globe’s women’s soccer talent pool.
Each country with recent success against the USWNT has taken a slightly different approach toward building its national teams. Every year the range of options expands for talented young soccer players as they determine the best ways for them to maximize their career opportunities.
The landscape has changed rapidly. Many of the most well-known women’s soccer players today were the first from their town or region to sign a professional contract or the first to gain an exemption to attend the boys’ special football school run by the national federation. A player now in her early 20s might have decided at 13 to travel across the country to attend the big, legendary men’s club’s academy that has now opened to girls, too, and then stayed to join the first team at age 16. All of these opportunities barely existed a generation ago.
The European Powerhouses
Spain have been most traditional and insular in its approach to building a national team, enjoying growing fan support, club investment, and player development at home. This is a squad of players who have grown up through the Spanish club system, signed as teens with the first teams, and matriculated to the big, established clubs of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, Valencia, and Sevilla. Only one Spaniard, Jenni Hermoso, currently plays outside Spain, for Pachuca in Mexico’s Liga MX Femenil, where she has quickly become the league’s leading scorer. Other Spanish national team players like Irene Paredes, Ona Batlle, and Laia Codina have spent time in various European leagues at big clubs like Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United, and AC Milan.
Spain’s Liga F is strong, and its competitive balance is improving. This year, Liga F champion Barcelona also won the most prestigious club tournament in the world, the European Champions League, by beating German club VfL Wolfsburg in front of a crowd exceeding 90,000 fans at Camp Nou.
While Spain’s national team players almost exclusively play in Liga F, the league is international in its makeup, providing those Spanish players a chance to sharpen their teeth against a wide-reaching talent pool. Liga F claims 120 international athletes from 46 countries, compared with 112 Spaniards. That diversity of skills and backgrounds enhances the quality of play and fan support in the league and improves national-team competitiveness. The more globalized the league, the better the quality of Spanish players coming through Spain’s development system.
Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga is slightly more than two-thirds German, but with 100 international athletes from 36 countries, the 225 German players enjoy a healthy domestic development ecosystem just as the Spaniards do. Germany has been building equity into soccer in intentional, thoughtful ways. When the Bundesliga, the men’s top division, was among the first major sports leagues to return to play after the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, the women’s top division recommenced play at the same time.
Like Spain, most members of Germany’s provisional roster for the World Cup play for German clubs, though three athletes – Ann Katrin Berger, Melanie Leupolz, and Sjoeke Nüsken – are now with England’s Women’s Super League champion Chelsea, and another, Sara Däbritz, plays for France’s Division 1 Féminine champion Olympique Lyon.
Continuing the trend, England’s provisional roster includes mostly Women’s Super League players, save three athletes, with two stars, Lucy Bronze and Keira Walsh, at Spain’s Barcelona and the third, Georgia Stanway, at Germany’s Bayern Munich. The Women’s Super League, like Liga F, is majority international, with 169 players from 35 countries and 141 English players. (Comparatively, the U.S.’s National Women’s Soccer League has a ratio closer to Germany’s, with 74 international players making up slightly more than a quarter of the league.)
What Germany and reigning European champion England share, and what Spain lacks, is that they have players on their roster whose journeys to the World Cup include time spent developing in the American collegiate system. (Germany has two – Sarai Linder of the University of Central Florida and Laura Freigang of Penn State – and England has four – Lucy Bronze, Alessia Russo, and Lotte Wubben-Moy at the University of North Carolina and Rachel Daly of St. John’s.)
The NCAA Pipeline
This exposed tip of the iceberg – the athletes who have achieved the pinnacle of sport in being selected to play for their country’s national team – provides a glimpse into the massive bummock below: the hundreds of international athletes each year choosing to leave their home countries and play soccer at American universities that had long ago built the grandest, best-resourced player development ecosystem in the world.
American college soccer is a particularly important developmental pathway for players in nations without the domestic infrastructure that has been built over the past decade or so in Europe. For example, the Philippines qualified for its first World Cup with a team made up mostly of American-born Filipina athletes who played American college soccer. Jamaica, Costa Rica, and other CONCACAF members have rosters heavily populated by athletes with American college experience on their résumés. Tokyo Olympic gold medalist Canada has benefited perhaps the most and the longest from the hundreds of elite soccer programs south of its border. Of Canada’s 2023 World Cup provisional roster, 22 of 25 members played or currently play American college soccer.
The American college sports system has served as a main artery of Olympic and national team development for the world’s athletes since the 1980s. This has been the result of a collection of historical forces, including Title IX (the U.S. civil rights law that mandates equal educational opportunity on the basis of gender), the professionalization of college sports that enabled its growth into a multibillion-dollar industry and the development of world-class sports infrastructure, and a nationwide commitment to elite sport development in schools.
No law has been more important to the global development of women’s soccer than Title IX. While the rest of the world’s sports establishment had long considered soccer football to be a manly sport, improper and too dangerous for women, in the United States, women’s soccer did not face as strong an opposition from the men’s sports establishment because the men’s sport producing manliness ideology in the U.S. was American football, not soccer football. With American football’s large presence in intercollegiate athletics, women’s soccer became catapulted forward by Title IX and universities’ investments in collegiate women’s soccer.
More than 20,000 international athletes compete each year in the three divisions of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Data released by the NCAA show that the number of international women’s soccer athletes choosing the American college route has been increasing. In a five-school year period from 2013 to 2018, the number of first-year international students in women’s soccer increased from 178 to 258, a rate of 45 percent.
At the 2022 NCAA Division I Women’s Soccer College Cup, a 64-team tournament for which the best teams in the country must qualify to compete, 52 of the 64 teams had at least one international player. Nineteen teams had five or more international players, and seven teams had 10 or more international players. The five college teams with the most international players were Memphis (17), Hofstra (14), Arizona State (13), Harvard (13), and Quinnipiac (13). Florida State led all schools to have reached the semifinal round with nine international players.
Across the 64 teams of the NCAA tournament, 236 international athletes representing 35 countries participated, making up 12 percent of the players. Eighty-one Canadians made up the largest international contingent. England and Germany followed with 31 and 26, respectively. All three countries have defeated the USWNT since the Tokyo Olympics and are planning to be victorious at the 2023 World Cup.
The Ripple Effects
The list of countries investing in domestic women’s soccer infrastructure is growing. For example, though Mexico failed to qualify for the 2023 World Cup, Liga MX Femenil is clearly on the rise. This is in part intentional and structural: Mexico is co-hosting the 2026 Men’s World Cup with the U.S. and Canada and has bid to host the 2027 Women’s World Cup with the U.S. Every men’s team in the top division must have a women’s team. And, thanks to a rule adopted recently, all 18 women’s teams must have a U17 squad, and every U17 squad must have a woman as head coach or assistant coach.
The growth of Mexican women’s soccer is also cultural: More girls and women are being encouraged to play and stay in the game, and fan support continues to rise. At the second stage of the Clausura final at Estadio Azteca earlier this month, despite torrential rain throughout the night, a record 58,156 fans watched as Club América defeated Pachuca to be crowned league champion. Competitive balance is growing as clubs like Pachuca and Cruz Azul have increased investment and lured international talent. Monterrey derbies between Rayadas and Tigres consistently draw large crowds in the tens of thousands. This is how a healthy development ecosystem begins.
Even as more options become available, attending an American college will continue to be a wise choice for women’s players embarking on their soccer development, no matter where they come from in the world. Historically, men’s players matriculate up to senior teams from the youth level within club programs and make a good living along the way. Women, however, rarely receive the same financial incentives as men. While some contracts are salaried and “professional,” many women make only enough to cover living, training, and competition expenses.
As a result, many women who played within pro clubs in their home countries as teenagers are still considered eligible to play under NCAA amateurism rules. Though eligibility challenges do arise, like the case of Rachel Daly, the English national team star who, a decade ago, had to sit out a year when she chose to attend St. John’s University in New York because she had played for professional club Lincoln during the first two years of the newly launched FA Women’s Super League.
The new landscape of name, image, and likeness rights (or NIL – the rights of athletes to enter into financial deals with third parties) may provide even better opportunities for international athletes to play soccer at U.S. colleges. While international students cannot perform work outside the university in the United States while on student visas, they can do so in their home countries – and get paid. National governing bodies in other countries could model USA Triathlon’s Watch Us Thrive NIL Collective and start crafting NIL deals for their current and future national team athletes to subsidize their playing experiences in the U.S.
Recently, more development pathways have begun to open for American women’s soccer players, too. A decade ago, Lindsey Horan became the first American to turn pro out of high school and play for the French club Paris Saint-Germain instead of the University of North Carolina’s Tar Heels. Unlike elsewhere, it was unprecedented for an American woman to forgo college and sign with a domestic league club. When Horan chose to turn pro, it made most sense to leave the U.S.
This norm has already changed with Olivia Moultrie, who, at 13, became the youngest American women’s soccer player to sign an endorsement contract; at 15, became the youngest player to appear in a National Women’s Soccer League regular-season game; and, at 16, became the youngest player to score in NWSL history. Similar to Horan, Moultrie had verbally committed to North Carolina but wanted to train and play with an American professional club, and she sued for the right to do so. In 2021, after Moultrie won a preliminary injunction, the NWSL agreed to settle the antitrust lawsuit and allow Moultrie to play in the league “unless and until” a new collectively bargained rule states otherwise.
In 2022, 17-year-old Jaedyn Shaw followed, gaining an exemption from the NWSL’s age restriction rule to sign and play before turning 18. After Moultrie and Shaw, the NWSL announced “a new entry mechanism for players under the age of 18,” including, among many other things, a limit of two under-age players per team, no trading of underage players without player and parental consent, and a requirement that all underage players must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
As Rachel Bachman of The Wall Street Journal noted, we are now witnessing a “teen invasion” of the NWSL, and the age record set by Moultrie has already been broken by Chloe Ricketts, albeit by a mere 3 days, when she signed with the Washington Spirit at 15 years and 283 days old.
In a preview of what’s to come, three of the 23 members of the official USWNT World Cup roster announced on June 21 had opted to forgo their collegiate eligibility to turn professional: Horan, plus young stars Trinity Rodman and Alyssa Thompson, who decommitted from Washington State and Stanford, respectively, and went to the NWSL instead. The 2027 World Cup will likely feature a roster with even more players choosing professional clubs over colleges.
The NWSL’s removal of the 18-year-old age requirement represents just one way the American soccer ecosystem is adjusting to fall in line with global practices. Another development suggesting this trend is the announcement of an entirely new women’s league in the United States that includes elements even more in line with global football.
The recently announced USL Super League intends to launch in 2024 as a first division league, competing directly with the NWSL. Modeled off global soccer, the USL Super League will sit atop a pyramid of developmental leagues. Clubs will have academy teams with direct pipeline opportunities for players to matriculate to the first team/professional club, and the season will follow the global soccer calendar from early fall to late spring (unlike the NWSL and Major League Soccer, which play a flipped season, from early spring to late fall).
While a handful of American teens are now eschewing college to turn pro, college soccer is also becoming more and more professional, with the high level of play, world-class infrastructure, and new endorsement-contract and other money-making opportunities.
In other words, opportunities and benefits across domestic leagues around the world – and now including even the U.S., and those that exist at hundreds of NCAA programs – are converging at the same time that they are expanding.
College soccer will remain a top option for American athletes and international athletes for the foreseeable future, and the future of women’s soccer, with all the current and coming development ecosystems, is certainly bright. When you tune in to watch World Cup matches starting next month, be sure to look for athletes with American college experience in their backgrounds and make note of the diversity of developmental pathways across the various national teams.
After a record-breaking March Madness in the United States and heading into what is sure to be a strong FIFA World Cup this summer, women throughout the world are using this growth to secure greater security and influence.
Explosive growth is exciting, but intentional growth could create the power, permanence, and protection that women’s sports deserves.
We explore what that growth could look like in our latest digital issue.