Young U.S. women’s soccer players aren’t really young

The For The Win podcast looking ahead to the Women’s World Cup final made an interesting point about Jill Ellis finally trusting a young player like Morgan Brian to play a key role.

I listened to this the morning after a fun Twitter conversation.

So the two “young players” — Julie Johnston and Morgan Brian — who have made an impact for the U.S. national team in this World Cup are nowhere near the eligibility cutoff for the “best young player” award.

The team wasn’t always this way. The 1999 team had 20-year-old Lorrie Fair and 21-year-old Tiffany Roberts, with Kate Sobrero (now Markgraf) the third youngest at 22. The 2004 Olympic champions had three young Tar Heels: a 22-year-old defender named Cat Reddick (now Whitehill), 20-year-old Lindsey Tarpley, and 19-year-old phenom Heather O’Reilly.

Go back to 1991, and you’ll find precocious 19-year-old Mia Hamm and 20-year-old Julie Foudy. The oldest player on the team, April Heinrichs, was 27.

A lot has changed, of course, most notably the fact that women can make a living in the sport. The USA has a lot of experienced, talented players in their 20s and early 30s. The typical U.S. college player isn’t ready to be a major contributor in the NWSL, much less face off against Germany in a World Cup semifinal.

But you have to wonder if the USA is falling behind at the youth level. The last U.S. U20 team lost to Germany in group play and fell out of the tournament in the quarterfinals, losing to North Korea on penalty kicks. The U17s didn’t even qualify in 2014.

And other countries are producing players who can contribute. Canada’s Kadeisha Buchanan, herself a college player at West Virginia, is a Best Young Player nominee. China has no one over age 26. Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, who plays at Lyon, turns 20 next week. Most of the Costa Rican roster can’t rent a car in the USA — Gloriana Villalobos couldn’t even drive. Mexican goalkeeper Cecilia Santiago has been around forever and is still only 20.

All that said, this is still a tournament in which the 27- and 28-year-olds are dominant. Some U.S. players are no longer at their best, but Becky Sauerbrunn, who still seems like a newcomer in many ways, is in her prime at 30. So are Japanese captain Aya Miyama, who has been short-listed for the Golden Ball award, Swedish captain Caroline Seger, and Australian attack leader Lisa De Vanna. Only a couple of years younger, you’ll find the best European players — Celia Sasic (26), Lara Dickenmann (29), Vero (28), Steph Houghton (27), Elodie Thomis (28) and so on.

What do these countries all have in common? Solid professional leagues that allow players to continue playing until their athleticism peaks and their understanding of the game is complete.

So FIFA’s concept of a “young player” differs from the U.S. perception of that term. Certainly the USA could stand to give more opportunities to the early-20s players like Brian, Johnston and Crystal Dunn. But the “young player” as FIFA knows it is almost extinct. They’ll need to redefine that award or else hand it out by default to the youngest player in the tournament.


Sauerbrunn’s sendoff, Sullivan’s smashing debut and a JoLi party

Scenes from D.C. United Women’s home regular-season finale at the Maryland SoccerPlex, in which DCU beat Dayton 4-1 and clinched home field for the W-League East playoffs:

1. Becky Sauerbrunn, the one-time “iron woman” of WPS who had played every minute for the Plex-residing Washington Freedom through 2009 and 2010, played her fourth and final game with D.C. United Women this season. She seemed to be cursed in her previous games. DCU Women needed a late goal to beat Dayton 3-2 in May, and Virginia Beach handed DCU its only tie in June. This time, DCU dominated the first half but only got one goal to show for it, then went in level at 1-1 when Dayton scrambled in an equalizer in stoppage time. But the curse was broken in a big way.

Here, she talks about her season, prospects for pro women’s soccer going forward, MLS involvement in women’s soccer, and Lauren Cheney’s non-British pregame music selection. Seriously — no Knights of Cydonia?

2. The DCU roster got even better this week with the addition of U.S. Under-17 player Andi Sullivan. The Bethesda SC player just finished her season in the ECNL, and to put it mildly, she didn’t seem intimidated facing older opposition in the W-League. She created several chances down the right wing, including one for herself when she sliced into the middle and ripped a shot just wide, and she scored from a holding midfield slot later in the game.

3. DCU teammates Joanna Lohman and Lianne Sanderson are continuing their work with JoLi Academy, with plans to return to India in January. Sanderson scored the game’s first goal. Here, Lohman talks about the Academy and her “shot” during the game.

Dayton — starting a murderous five-day, four-game swing through the sauna of Northern Virginia — defended well through the first half and managed to scramble the ball into the goal on one of its few chances. But once a team like DCU gets rolling, it’s very hard to stop.

Atlanta had drawn with VSI Tampa Flames earlier in the evening, which meant DCU’s win clinched home field for the Eastern playoffs.

The results also saved the W-League from an absurd situation.

In the current W-League playoff format, the three division winners in the East make the playoffs. The division winner with the best record is the top seed. The wild-card team is the team that finished second in the division with the top seed. So it could be in a second-place team’s best interest to make sure the first-place team has the best record.

This hypothetical problem so nearly became reality. Had Atlanta run the table — not that winning at Charlotte next weekend will be easy — the Silverbacks would’ve finished up their season this coming Saturday around 7:30 p.m. with 32 points. DCU has 31. So Virginia Beach, the second-place team behind DCU in the Atlantic, would have to hope DCU won its final game or at least drew and earned a tie-breaking edge.

The problem with that? DCU’s finale is at 8 p.m. Saturday … at Virginia Beach. So if Atlanta had won out, Virginia Beach would have entered its season finale at home knowing that a win or possibly even a draw would eliminate it from the playoffs. Lose, and the Piranhas would be in.

Crisis averted, but clearly, this playoff format can’t stand next year.

Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about that. Virginia Beach can focus on keeping second place and a playoff spot — the Piranhas’ Sunday game with third-place Fredericksburg has been postponed. And DCU can prep for the playoffs.