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Should The U.S. Be Worried About The Next Generation Of Women’s Soccer?

Wherever it lands in the upcoming World Cup draw — which will be held in Paris on Saturday at noon ET — the United States Women’s National Team will go into next year’s tournament in its familiar perch as favorites. The U.S. has been the most dominant team in the history of the event (which began in 1991), capturing the Cup three times and winning more matches (33) than any other country. Along the way, Team USA has given us multiple generations of superstars, the latest of which includes names like Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath — all of whom figure to represent the Stars and Stripes in France next summer.

But this won’t quite be the same roster as the one last seen hoisting the World Cup in 2015 (or even the one America sent to the 2016 Olympics). Likely gone are goalkeeper Hope Solo, forward Abby Wambach, midfielder Lauren Holiday and defenders Meghan Klingenberg, Christie Rampone and Ali Krieger, among others. And while the U.S. has perpetually been able to retool on the fly with the emergence of even greater young talent than before (remember Morgan’s breakout performance as a 22-year-old at the 2011 World Cup?), there’s growing concern that the next generation won’t be as ready to carry the torch.

Specifically, the U.S. results at the youth level — including both the Under-17 and Under-20 Women’s World Cups — have been pretty mediocre in recent years. The U.S. didn’t advance out of its group in either tournament this year and has advanced past the quarterfinals just twice at the youth level since 2008.1

Obviously, those 2018 youth players won’t be old enough in 2019 to figure into the senior team’s World Cup fortunes. But the lack of earlier success could suggest a down period coming for the Americans in upcoming World Cups. At least, that’s assuming youth-level results are predictive of future senior-team outcomes. But is that true?

Fortunately for the U.S., the relationship there is only a moderate one. To measure this, I’m using a system called “Dynasty Points,” which I’ve used before to track a team’s postseason success over multiple years. In each tournament, you get 1,000 points for winning the whole thing, 500 for finishing second, 250 for losing in the semifinals (with a 100-point bonus for finishing third), 115 for losing in the quarters and 40 for losing in the Round of 16 (when applicable).2 If a team’s performance at the youth level was cause for concern or optimism for later iterations of the senior team, we’d expect a strong relationship between World Cup dynasty points and dynasty points produced by the youth teams in the decade between five and 15 years before.

But looking at the 2007, 2011 and 2015 World Cups (and weighting by the number of youth tournaments that led up to each — meaning 2015 had more of a sample, since the era of two youth tournaments didn’t begin until 2008), the correlation coefficient between youth performance and World Cup success is 0.49. That’s not a nonexistent relationship by any means, but it also indicates that about three-quarters of the variation between countries in World Cup success is explained by something other than youth-level results in the years beforehand.

Broadly speaking, if a team consistently finishes well in the Under-17 and Under-20 events, it tends to do better at the World Cup as well. Many of the most successful youth-level countries — such as Germany, the U.S. and Japan — are also among the best World Cup teams. But the relationship isn’t perfect. According to Dynasty Points, North Korea is the most successful youth-level team since 2002, winning four tournaments and finishing second on two other occasions. Yet North Korea has advanced out of the group stage just once in its World Cup history.3 Meanwhile, Norway and Sweden have been incredibly successful at the World Cup level (they rank third and fifth in all-time Dynasty Points, respectively) and have combined to advance out of the group stage of a youth tournament just twice since 2002.

The U.S.’s own history is instructive in the imperfect relationship between youth results and World Cup outcomes. Although it dominated junior tournaments from 2002 to 2008 — winning two events, finishing second in another and never losing before the semifinals — it has also made two World Cup Finals and won Olympic gold with the senior squad since its ongoing youth-level dry spell began in 2010.

Is the USWNT’s youth-level talent pipeline drying up?

Results for the United States at both the World Cup and youth-level tournaments

Year Tournament Type Matches Wins* Dynasty Points
1991 World Cup Senior 6 6.0 1000
1995 World Cup Senior 6 4.5 350
1999 World Cup Senior 6 6.0 1000
2002 U-19 WC Youth 6 6.0 1000
2003 World Cup Senior 6 5.0 350
2004 U-19 WC Youth 6 5.0 350
2006 U-20 WC Youth 6 4.0 250
2007 World Cup Senior 6 4.5 350
2008 U-17 WC Youth 6 3.5 500
2008 U-20 WC Youth 6 5.0 1000
2010 U-20 WC Youth 4 2.5 115
2011 World Cup Senior 6 4.0 500
2012 U-17 WC Youth 3 2.0 0
2012 U-20 WC Youth 6 4.5 1000
2014 U-20 WC Youth 4 2.0 115
2015 World Cup Senior 7 6.5 1000
2016 U-17 WC Youth 3 1.0 0
2016 U-20 WC Youth 6 3.0 250
2018 U-17 WC Youth 3 1.0 0
2018 U-20 WC Youth 3 1.5 0

Dynasty Points are awarded for success in a tournament. A team gets 1,000 points for winning the tournament, 250 for losing in the semifinals (with a 100-point bonus for finishing third), 115 for losing in the quarters and 40 for losing in the Round of 16.

* Ties are counted as a half-win.

Source: FIFA

It bears mentioning that the 2012 Under-20 squad also won gold, so the U.S.’s recent youth results haven’t been completely devoid of success. And it’s also important to note that the senior team can poach promising young stars from the youth level, inherently limiting the U.S.’s performance in U-17 and (especially) U-20 tournaments in favor of bolstering the main roster.

It’s true that next summer’s team will be asking more of some players who hadn’t taken on full-fledged starring roles in previous major tournaments. But a number of those have drawn rave reviews during friendlies and qualifiers with the national team this year, including Lindsey Horan and Crystal Dunn, both of whom also logged time on the 2016 Olympic team. And forward Mallory Pugh, who will turn 21 just a few months before the World Cup, is as promising as any member of the U.S.’s next generation. Pugh returned from injury to score six goals and set up three others in 10 international games this year — and could be just scratching the surface of her talent.

According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, the average age of Team USA in its 2018 games was 26.4 years old, compared with the average age of 32.6 for the group that took the field in the 2015 World Cup. A few standbys do remain from the rosters of old — Lloyd and Rapinoe are still the anchors of this team, while Morgan remains at the top of her game, having scored or assisted on 14 goals in 15 games with the national team this year. But the 2019 World Cup will also serve as a transition of sorts into a new era for the USWNT. And although America’s youth-level results leading up to next year aren’t great, we shouldn’t assume that the U.S.’s senior-team dominance will end any time soon.

Footnotes

  1. That year, Morgan helped power the U.S. to the championship at the Under-20 Cup with this ridiculous goal.

  2. These values are roughly scaled to reflect how many teams you needed to beat out in order to reach a given level of the tournament, while keeping the value of winning at a constant 1,000.

  3. The North Korean team was banned from the 2015 World Cup after a doping investigation.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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