What comes next for the U.S. women's soccer team? That's the question I'm hearing from several precincts after the dramatic end to the Women's World Cup on Sunday. The short answer is this: the 2012 Olympics come next. Women's soccer has a strange schedule, since its two main events (the World Cup and Olympics) take place in consecutive years, followed by two years in which women's soccer largely drops off the radar.
As long as this schedule remains the same (and I'd argue that it shouldn't), next year's Olympics will be the end of a four-year cycle. The short turnaround time between now and next July means there won't be many changes in the U.S. team. Coach Pia Sundhage's contract runs through the Olympics, so don't expect any philosophical revolution. The main question I have is whether older U.S. starters like Shannon Boxx (who will be 35 by then) and Christie Rampone (who will be 37) will still be on the team.
My sense: Boxx has given a lot to the national team over the years, but she looks a step slow these days. As for Rampone, the captain, she played well in Germany and is still at the top of the team's fitness list, so I suspect she has one more tournament in her as a starter.
Stars Abby Wambach and Hope Solo will still be around, of course, but how will Sundhage use younger attacking talents like Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Cheney? Morgan and Rapinoe came off the bench for most of the World Cup, but it's hard to imagine Sundhage would do the same at the Olympics. Sundhage likes the 4-4-2, so I suspect we'll see Morgan paired up top with Wambach. That could leave Rapinoe starting at left midfield and Cheney perhaps in the central midfield with Lloyd. It's worth noting that Sundhage said recently that the future of Cheney (who played as a forward until the World Cup) may well be in the midfield.
For what it's worth, I think a 4-3-3 would be the best fit for the U.S.' personnel:
GK: Hope Solo
D: Ali Krieger, Christie Rampone, Rachel Buehler, Amy LePeilbet
M: Lauren Cheney, Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe
F: Heather O'Reilly, Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan
Keep in mind, though, there's not much difference between this lineup and a 4-4-2 with O'Reilly at right mid and Cheney playing centrally.
Here are four other things to think about as women's soccer moves forward:
My proposal: Hold the Women's World Cup every two years in odd-numbered years. FIFA should require that confederations hold legitimate World Cup qualifying campaigns that involve group play (as UEFA currently does) and not just a one-hit qualifying tournament (as we see in CONCACAF). These World Cup qualifying campaigns -- which could be held in two-month block schedules -- could also be used to determine the teams that would appear in the Olympics and confederation championships like the women's Euro.
What would happen to the women's Olympic tournament? You could drop it or still hold it, but it's simply not as important as the World Cup for two reasons: 1) Women's soccer never gets the focus during the Olympics that it does during the WWC because it has to share the spotlight with so many other sports, and 2) The Olympic women's tournament has only 12 teams, which isn't nearly as many as the 24 in the WWC. (Keep in mind, Germany won't even be competing in the 2012 Olympics.)
What would happen to the women's Euro, a quadrennial event that next takes place in 2013? You could drop it entirely or just move it to non-Olympic even-numbered years (2014, 2018, etc.). The women's Euro is a nice tournament, but the fact is that not even many women's soccer fans outside of Europe watch it.
Would holding the Women's World Cup every two years water down mainstream public interest? I don't think so. There's nothing sacred about once-every-four-years, and the WWC should get good TV audiences as long as you hold it in the late-June/early-July time period, a relatively quiet stretch in the sports calendar not just in the U.S. but around the world.
I don't have the time to do more extended research of penalty-kick shootouts, but if you're looking for a bigger sample size you could always include shootouts in other tournaments like the Copa América, Champions League, Olympics, etc.