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.