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Olympic soccer: Are US women facing the future in France?

The US women will open their Olympic soccer tournament against France Wednesday. In some ways, they will be seeking to emulate the technical skills of their opponents.

By Staff writer / July 25, 2012

Abby Wambach from the US women's Olympic soccer team takes a shot at goal during a training session ahead of the London 2012 Olympic Games in Glasgow, Scotland, last week.

David Moir/Reuters

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No matter what happens Wednesday, when the US women's soccer team opens its Olympic tournament against France, it has – in some ways – already lost.

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To understand why, one need only look at the roster sheets.

Two words dominate the French roster: Olympique Lyonnais. It is the name of the top team in France's professional women's soccer league – a juggernaut side that has contributed 11 players to the French national squad and, in doing so, has helped propel the French women from perpetual also-rans to rising stars of the world stage.   

On the US roster, three words are just as prevalent but far more worrisome: NO CLUB AFFILIATION.

This May, America's latest attempt to establish a professional league for women – Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) – folded. That three-year experiment followed another failed three-year experiment – the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) – which lasted from 2000 to 2003.

Now, the pressure is on, and America's Olympic dominance in the sport could be at stake. 

From that moment in 1999 when Brandi Chastain's primal scream announced America as queens of the soccer world, the American women have seen their dominance slowly ebb. Back then, the Chastains and Mia Hamms and Julie Foudys were the product of the world's best talent pipeline for women's soccer: the US university system. During the past decade, however, the rest of the world has been playing catch-up.

First, Germany won the 2003 and 2007 World Cups, then Japan defeated the US in the 2011 final. In 2003 and 2007, in particular, the verdict was undeniable. The Americans were immensely talented, supremely fit, and driven by an unmatched desire to win. But they were being outplayed. The Germans could pass the ball more inventively, were more aware tactically, and their technical ball-handling skills in tight areas were a revelation.

In short, they were better – and that rise corresponded directly to the maturation and improvement of the German professional league founded in 1990.

Now, other teams are beginning to follow that same arc, building success by honing better, more technical players in nascent national leagues – Japan in winning in 2011, and France in announcing itself as the the team of the future the same year.

It leaves US women's soccer at a crossroads.

For the national team, the development of a women's league "is pretty critical," says Tony DiCicco, coach of that 1999 World Cup-winning side and the commissioner of the WUSA. "For us to expect that every college graduate is going to be fully developed is unrealistic."

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