In some respects, history can repeat itself and sometimes people don’t learn from history. And that includes soccer coaches.
On Sept. 24, 2003, FrontRowSoccer.com Editor Michael Lewis, then the editor of ENYSoccer.com, wrote a piece about the U.S. women’s national team and its potential age problems prior to the 2003 Women’s World Cup. The defending champions finished third.
Eighteen years later, an aging American team has suffered a similar fate at the Tokyo Olympics.
There has been much written about the 2021 team’s disappointing performance and its average age of almost 30 and the average age of the front line of 33. The USWNT plays Australia for the bronze medal at the Thursday.
By Michael Lewis
If the U.S. women manage to take the final victory lap around the Home Depot Center on Oct. 12, they will wind up beating the odds and bucking a reality that has been around international soccer for 73 years.
That reality? Soccer is a young man’s or young woman’s game.
The U.S. entered the 2003 Women’s World Cup with an average age of 28, according to FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association), the sport’s governing body, which makes them the oldest team in any of the four tournaments since the international competition began in 1991.
In fact, they are one of the oldest teams to ever have played in a World Cup — men or women.
Yet, they have aspirations of defending their title in Carson, Calif. next month.
“By the nature of the amount of games you play in a short time, it’s a young players event. So, April’s challenge is to mix that veteran experience and the know-how-to-win type players with some of the younger players,” said former U.S. women’s coach Tony DiCicco of current coach April Heinrichs.
DiCicco directed the Americans to the 1996 Olympic gold medal and the 1999 women’s world championship.
During the 2002 World Cup, U.S. coach Bruce Arena told the media in South Korea, “Soccer is a young man’s game.”
The numbers back up Arena’s and DiCicco’s statements are pretty staggering.
In an extensive study I produced for my 2002 book, World Cup Soccer, underscored that soccer, particularly the goal-scorers, was for the young over 16 previous World Cups:
* A total of 74 percent of the goals were scored by players 29 or younger.
* The average age of a World Cup scoring champion was 24.7. Ronaldo was 25 when his eight goals led everyone in Korea/Japan.
Numbers for women are either the same or even more pronounced:
* The average age of a goalscoring champion is 26.25 (boosted higher because Brazilian midfielder Sissi was 32 — the oldest scoring champion ever, man or woman — when she shared top scoring honors with China’a 26-year-old Sun Wen in 1999 with seven apiece).
American Michelle Akers was 25 when she connected for her record 10 goals in 1991 and Norway’s Ann Kristin Aarones was only 22 when she led the 1995 Cup with six goals.
* The average age of all WWC goal-scorers entering USA ’03 was 24.9.
* An incredible 82.2 percent of the goals were scored by women under 30.
By the way, a total 13 over-30 women in the previous three tournaments combined for 26 goals (Sweden’s Pia Sundhage, who most recently coached the Boston Breakers in the Women’s United Soccer Association, was the oldest scorer, finding the back of the net at 35 in 1995).
“In this particular area of the game, you need a striker who has strength, power and speed, which you tend to lose a little with time,” said current Brazilian national coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, who guided Brazil to its fourth world championship in 1994.
It goes beyond scoring goals.
The average age of women’s world championships is 24.96. Broken down, the U.S. was 24.2 in 1991, Norway 24.4 in 1995 and the U.S. 26.3 in 1999.
On the other hand, the 2003 U.S. squad boasts seven women over 30, the most ever by a team in this competition (that certainly looks like an indictment over how the U.S. has produced players over the past decade, but that’s a different column for a different time).
A pair of 35-year-olds handle the central defender spots — Brandi Chastain and co-captain Joy Fawcett. Two workhorse 32-year-olds patrol the midfield — Kristine Lilly (record 255 internationals) and co-captain Julie Foudy. And two lethal weapons are up front — Mia Hamm (31), who has scored more international goals (142) than any human on the planet, and Tiffeny Milbrett (30), a 98-goal scorer overshadowed by Hamm.
If the games are tight, the great equalizer could be goalkeeper Briana Scurry (32), a USA ’99 hero who revived her career since missing the 2000 Olympics.
I asked Heinrichs about this concern before the WWC and this was her full answer:
“I’m not concerned about their ability to play 90 minutes back-to-back through several World Cups because traditionally, our senior players, our veteran players are the fittest players that we have.
“If you watched Mia play in the WUSA finals she ran all 90-whatever minutes that game. It was like a 95-minute game. Her mobility and ability to cover the ground has been tremendous. Brandi Chastain on her club team is one of the fittest players. I saw her play in an overtime game. Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett played in the overtime game against Atlanta and again they are some of the fittest players we have in this pool.
“We go into this World Cup knowing our senior players bring us experience with composure and the deepest fitness base we ever had going into a World Cup.”
Not surprisingly, Heinrichs was backed by her veteran players.
“I’ll take Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Mia Hamm, Joy Fawcett any time,” Chastain said.
“I believe that if you’re still making an impact at this level on the team, you’re doing your job,” Lilly said. “I think we have a deeper bench than we’ve ever had. Half the team is probably half or 10 years younger than the other a lot of the older players. We have a lot of youth. It’s not like the full team is surrounded by 30 plus players. I have been playing with 30-year-olds a long time. We have that fire and competitiveness that the youth has learned from us. We still have it. As long as we still have that going into this World Cup, it’s going to help us tremendously.”
Aging, talented teams have acquitted themselves well in past men’s World Cups, but have fallen short of grabbing the brass ring.
At Mexico ’86, France had several players over 30, including the great playmaker Michel Platini, who was 31 at the time. The French wound up baking in the hot, Mexican sun and were eliminated by Germany in a lackluster semifinal effort.
At France ’98, the U.S., trying to leave off the success of its 1994 World Cup side (the Americans had reached the second round for the first time since 1930), had an average age of 28 and wound up humiliated by finishing last and 32nd.
It’s not that the American women are over the hill, untalented or will embarrass themselves. They are expected to go far in the tournament.
As good a shape as they’re in, when push comes to shove in a key moment against Germany or China in the semifinals or final, those players might not have that extra bounce or might have lost a half a step or some quickness.
Just remember what transpired at the Olympic gold-medal match between the U.S. and Norway just three short years ago. Norway’s Dagny Mullgren managed to get a half step on U.S. defender Joy Fawcett and scored the game-winning Golden Goal in extra time.
A half a step!
That’s the difference between taking a victory lap or watching it in tears from the sidelines.