United States Women’s National Team central defender Abby Dahlkemper recently gave an interview to Business Insider in which she declared, “We have the first- and second-best teams in the world.” There’s no doubt the USWNT has the best and deepest team in international women’s soccer, but the suggestion that the B-team could be so good seems preposterous on its face.
While the USWNT was undoubtedly the best team at the last World Cup, it hardly had an easy time. France, ranked No. 4 in the world, and England, currently No. 6, gave the Americans difficult games.
But just because they wouldn’t be No. 2 doesn’t mean the USWNT B-team wouldn’t be extremely good. Dahlkemper’s interview got me thinking about how good that team might be, and why.
Why is the USWNT pool so deep?
Title IX was passed in 1972, but it still has an incredible influence on the USWNT’s dominance in international soccer to this day. Soccer fans and coaches have endless debates about how to improve or do away with high school and college soccer, as well as pay-to-play academies, but they’re still getting more players into the game than any other country.
Private academies aren’t subject to Title IX, which dictates that any educational program receiving federal financial assistance must provide equal opportunities for boys and girls, but they are directly affected by it. Because there are as many athletic scholarships available to girls as there are to boys, parents are just as willing to pay for their girls to get top soccer coaching as they are for their boys, and the market responds to that.
Whether American soccer players get development opportunities as high quality as their European or Asian rivals is very much up for debate. What isn’t is the sheer volume of Americans that are decent professionals. The best player in the world isn’t an American in most years. Hell, the 10 best players in the world are usually not American. But the United States is the only country that has 20 of the best 100, and probably 100 of the best 500 players in the world.
What does the international landscape look like right now?
Here are the current FIFA rankings. Before you cringe at the prospect of discussing teams’ quality in terms of FIFA rankings, I should let you know they’re different from the men’s rankings. FIFA has a bizarre formula for the men, while the women’s ranking is heavily ELO-based.
The current top four — USA, Germany, Netherlands and France — are probably the four best teams in the world without argument. Nos. 5 and 6, Sweden and England, are also top-tier teams with some caveats. Sweden are a bit boosted by excellent head coach Peter Gerhardsson, while England have the talent to be No. 2, but are probably being held back by struggling head coach Phil Neville. Those six teams form the top tier, and then there’s a bit of a drop-off.
Nos. 7-10 are Australia, Canada, Brazil and Japan, at which point there’s another drop-off. No. 13 Spain likely belongs in this tier, but haven’t climbed due to a difficult World Cup draw that saw them face Germany and the USWNT. Another handful of teams are solid, but you’re firmly into strugglers with semi-pro players in key roles after No. 23 New Zealand.
The short answer: They’re a World Cup knockout team, but not elite
Given the above, I think the USWNT B-team would definitely make the World Cup knockout stage. I think it’s possible that they could also be favored in their Round of 16 game and make it to the quarterfinal. But at that stage, they’d run into a team as good as them or better. Assuming the top four avoided massive upsets, won their groups and made the quarterfinal, I think one of Germany, Netherlands or France would beat USWNT B at that stage.
The holes in Australia, Canada and Brazil’s lineups were exposed in the Round of 16 during the 2019 World Cup. All of those teams have several starters who play in NWSL, alongside the players that would be in USWNT B, and do not significantly outperform them. Being a decent NWSL starter qualifies you to start for second-tier national teams, so it’s reasonable to guess that a match between these teams and USWNT B would be extremely competitive.
Not satisfied with the short answer? Let’s get into the weeds
If you’re an ardent follower of women’s soccer, nothing above was news to you. I think you’re here because you want to argue about who would make the USWNT B-team, and so do I, so let’s get to it.
Perhaps Dahlkemper meant the USWNT’s second XI is the second-best team in the world, but no one takes 11 players to a tournament. I’m giving the USWNT its current 23-woman squad, subbing in Alex Morgan for Jessica McDonald, since Morgan is clearly first choice when fit. I get to choose from the rest of the pool.
In making this squad, I tried to give myself options to change the game. In most positions, I’ve taken two completely different styles of players. Some players are not in their ideal positions because we had some holes to fill, and I opted for talent over perfect fit a few times.
There were also some reaaaaaaaaally painful omissions. I think USWNT C would be a Round of 16 team too. I’m dead serious.
Goalkeepers: Aubrey Bledsoe, Jane Campbell, Casey Murphy
Tough omission — Claudia Dickey: The UNC and Under-20s keeper could start for a lot of countries, but there’s a serious logjam in front of her.
Left backs: Gabby Seiler, Hailie Mace
Tough omission — Tegan McGrady: Hopefully she’ll be fit enough to cement her place with the Washington Spirit this season, but she’s just played very little soccer in the past year.
Right backs: Sarah Gorden, Gaby Vincent
Tough omission — Emily Fox: Unfortunately, the UNC right back tore her ACL at the end of last season and I can’t guess what she’ll look like when she comes back.
Center backs: Alana Cook, Samantha Staab, Emily Menges, Naomi Girma
Tough omission — Maycee Bell: Probably still a bit too raw for the big show at just 19 years old, but you’re going to see her play in a World Cup for the full NT someday.
Defensive midfielders: Sarah Killion, Danielle Colaprico
Tough omission — Allie Long: This feels cruel and unfair. Long has been a really good player for the Reign and would start for most World Cup teams. The DM pool is just too deep.
Central midfielders: Morgan Brian, McCall Zerboni
Tough omission — Jordan DiBiasi: The technically gifted Spirit midfielder was just a tad inconsistent in her rookie season, but she’s mega talented.
Attacking midfielders: Vanessa DiBernardo, Brianna Pinto
Tough omission — Sofia Huerta: Is Huerta one of the 46 most talented players in America? Absolutely. Did she show it last season? Not at all.
Wingers: Kristen Hamilton, Jessica McDonald, Darian Jenkins, Alexa Spaanstra
Tough omission — Paige Monaghan: Her numbers at Sky Blue are really solid but I don’t think she has Spaanstra or Jenkins’ ability to change the game with one play.
Strikers: Sophia Smith, Margaret Purce
Tough omission — Savannah McCaskill: She’s shown flashes of brilliance with Sky Blue and Chicago, but hasn’t shown she can give 90 good minutes two games in a row.
This team obviously lacks the star power of the teams in that No. 5-11 range that I think they’d have tough games against, but has better strength in depth than all of them. Let me know where you think I went wrong with the squad selection, or which other international teams you think could beat this team.