Route Two Soccer: There’s No Such Thing as an ‘International Level’ Player

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Today I want to challenge one of the most durable, and least well-founded, myths in women’s soccer: the idea that there is an “international level,” where play is more difficult than the domestic leagues.

This belief is so widespread that, according to a piece this week from Jeff Kassouf which detailed the US Women’s National Team selection process, it’s apparently taken seriously by key principals within US Soccer itself.

But if one applies even some casual scrutiny, the whole idea falls apart like cotton candy in a pool.

The argument here is pretty straightforward. The world contains four top-level international leagues—the NWSL in the US, the Frauen Bundesliga in Germany, the D1F in France, the WSL in England—along with five or six other weaker but still relatively high quality leagues (in Sweden, Spain, Denmark, etc.). But the reality is that the vast majority of the world’s top players are concentrated in those four big leagues.

For a league without much competitive balance, that produces a top tier which is absolutely stacked. In France, for example, Lyon effectively has a version of the French national team, supplemented with a few more of the best players from other countries. In leagues that are more balanced—like the NWSL—there is no single team that can compare with the top international sides, but the distribution of talent means that there are no gimmes. The worst team in the league would probably be a top 20 international side.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the roster.

Sky Blue has been anchored to the bottom of the NWSL table all season. This is a team with Carli Lloyd, Janine Beckie, Savannah McCaskill, Kailen Sheridan, and Thaisa Moreno—all of whom have received recent call-ups for teams in the world top 10. Then you have Raquel Rodriguez, one of the best players on the world’s #32 team. And Rebekah Stott, a regular for the world’s #20 team. Then there are players like Shea Groom, Christina Gibbons, Erica Skroski, and Sarah Killion—who would be regular internationals if they were playing for virtually any country in the world besides the United States.

Put Sky Blue into the next Women’s World Cup, and I think they’d be even money to make it out of the group stage. And this is the roster of the team with one point through eight games in the NWSL.

Then look at some of the teams higher up the table. North Carolina’s first XI is packed with key players for the #1 team in the world, and supplemented with a few key contributors from other top international sides. Put North Carolina into the next World Cup and they’d be among the favorites to win the whole thing.

No one would deny that there are differences between club and international competitions. Some players flourish in a stable club environment, but find it difficult to turn in the same performance when playing for their country. Conversely, some players are at their best in international duty, while only being average for club. There’s a variety of potential factors in play here: the individual psychology of the player, their adaptability and flexibility, the support system around them in different environments. And some of it may simply be random. Normal distribution of chance means some players will always be outliers, but this doesn’t necessarily carry any predictive meaning.

All of which is to say: even if there are some players whose performance levels vary between club and country, there’s certainly no reason to think the imbalance goes only in one direction.

In some cases, the talent pool for a given country will be clogged enough to close out a top-quality player. One could make this argument for the forward position in the US national team, where players like Christen Press and Lynn Williams—arguably among the top dozen strikers in the world—have struggled to find minutes. But that’s very different from saying that a player outperforming their competition at the club level lacks some undefined ‘international quality’ and therefore can’t be expected to transfer her performance between levels.

Long story short: a top player in the NWSL is a top player in world soccer, and there’s absolutely no reason to think that they wouldn’t be able to hang at the international level. A player who can dominate in a league that contains North Carolina, Portland, Orlando, Seattle, Chicago, etc. is one of the world’s best players, full stop.

One can only hope that the decision-makers in US Soccer understand this, and aren’t really taking their ‘5 point’ system seriously.

Images courtesy of Steph Nacho and Jonathan Tannenwald