Sun Jul 17 06:03pm EDT
Although the American national team's 2011 Women's World Cup ended in heartbreak after a loss to Japan on penalties in Sunday's gold-medal game (following the late extra-time equalizer seen above), their performance could still raise the profile of the 2015 World Cup in Canada. The Americans delivered an incredible showing throughout the tournament, coming up with crucial victories over Brazil and France to advance to the final, and they won plenty of hearts and minds at home in the process.
It's premature to spotlight this something that will make women's soccer a mainstream sport in the U.S., as we've heard that song before (and it isn't particularly easy to translate interest in a national team to interest in soccer at a club or university level). However, even if large numbers of the people the U.S. team attracted to the game may abandon it after this loss, some won't, and some of the expanded profile they gained during this tournament may follow the team through to the 2015 World Cup. That could be a tremendous boost for the Canadian host committee.
Canadian sports coverage still depends on the U.S. to an extent; we have our own priorities and our own big events like the Grey Cup and the Memorial Cup, but many things here get amplified if they're a big deal south of the border (like the Super Bowl, the Barry Bonds saga, et al) or minimized if they're ignored in the U.S. (curling, Canadian university sports and the rest). There was going to be American interest in the 2015 Women's World Cup regardless of the finish of this match given the strides women's soccer has taken in the U.S. and the run their squad made this year, but this outcome could affect how substantial that interest is.
We'll see if entering the 2015 tournament in the wake of this heartbreaking loss brings extra motivation and attention to the American team, or if their profile diminishes thanks to not claiming the 2011 trophy. It's worth noting that the Women's World Cup was going to get plenty of coverage here regardless, but that coverage is going to increase dramatically if the U.S. thinks this is a big deal. Furthermore, if there's a lot of interest in the 2015 Women's World Cup south of the border, we'll likely see plenty of Americans coming north for that, which could also be a substantial boost for the hosting committee. The chances of that seem higher thanks to the American run at this year's tournament.
It's also worth pointing out that this tournament was extremely competitive, which hasn't always been the case in the women's game. Japan was a highly-unexpected champion, and every match from the quarterfinal stage on was quite compelling. Furthermore, the tournament saw very little of the diving that has often plagued the men's game, and the on-field product was often of the highest level. The U.S. - Japan final in particular was hailed by many as one of the greatest sporting events of this year. That suggests that the level of play around the world is growing, and that in turn has helped boost worldwide interest in the women's game, which could make the 2015 tournament much bigger for Canada. If women's soccer continues to grow its profile between now and then, the next Women's World Cup could be a huge sporting event that attracts global visitors, attention and coverage.
Canada's own disappointing exit certainly isn't going to help, but there's plenty of reason to believe the Canadian women's program will again have optimism around it heading into 2015. They're likely to still have some of their current players around; legendary striker Christine Sinclair, who scored a spectacular goal against Germany, will only be 32 by the time the next Women's World Cup rolls around, and she's one of the older players on the current squad. There's a good core of young talent in Canada, and despite issues on the developmental side, it seems quite plausible the Canadians will be in good shape to contend by 2015.
On the U.S. front, they should still be a strong team; they have one of the deepest pools of women's soccer talent in the world and arguably invest more in developing women's soccer than anyone else. Something else this tournament showed is that the divide at the top is narrowing, though; teams like Japan and France are more than capable of knocking off those seen as upper-echelon squads. That, and the overall quality of soccer on display at the 2011 tournament, bodes very well for the 2015 edition regardless of how the U.S. and Canada look heading into that. However, a good push by both countries heading into 2015 could certainly help boost the tournament's profile even further. It's worth mentioning that there are notable competitions between now and then, too, including the 2012 London Olympics, and both Canada and the U.S. should be in contention there. If both the U.S. and Canada are looking promising heading into the 2015 tournament, it could be a spectacular moment for women's soccer globally.