How much did Europe close the gap on America in 2018?

By Kieran Theivam, Football Whispers

For those players that have played in both Europe and America, there’s a common question you’ll often hear them asked when they move from one to the other, “How do the two styles compare?”

The truth is, they’re very different, but there are elements that are starting to mirror each other, which has seen the gap between the two shrink considerably. As a result, clubs in Europe are now a much more attractive proposition, having for so long had to live in the shadow of the United States.

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is widely seen as the most competitive league in the world and for that reason, has been able to lure some of the world’s best in the likes of Marta (Brazil), Kim Little (Scotland) and Amandine Henry (France) since its inception in 2013.

But in 2018, Europe has closed the gap even further, with the offer of Champions League football a draw for many players, and the financial packages that some clubs are in a position to offer, more lucrative than ever. This has led to Little and Henry returning to Europe.

U.S internationals Crystal Dunn (Chelsea), Christen Press (Gothenburg) and Morgan Brian (Lyon) all had short spells in Europe during 2018, while World Cup winner and Olympic Gold Medallist, Heather O’Reilly, now playing with Dunn at ICC Champions North Carolina Courage, also came over to play for Arsenal.

Those players, however, did return to the United States and the league continues to be a major attraction for internationals – this despite the league’s salary cap.

The likes of Denmark’s Theresa Nielsen (Seattle Reign), Switzerland’s Ana Crnogorčević (Portland Thorns) and Norway’s Elise Thorsnes (Utah Royals) all joined the NWSL in 2018, but while players continue to head to the U.S, it’s largely in Europe where players are making the headlines.

In 2015, the year of the last World Cup, just four players from Europe made up the ten finalists of the FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year Award. The most recent awards, held in September, featured seven.

American players who have had stints in Europe, most notably Carli Lloyd (Man City), and Alex Morgan (Lyon) in 2017, have commented on the technical aspect of the game, with the U.S having a reputation for being faster, more athletic, and featuring quicker transitional play.

That alone was enough for U.S Soccer for years, with the vast majority of countries in Europe operating on a part-time or amateur model, and simply being outmuscled by the more powerful United States.

Now, however, with countries such as England forming fully professional setups – the FA WSL went full-time in September – Europe is starting to close the gap, and in the case of some of the bigger club sides, may hold an advantage over their U.S counterparts. 

The facilities available to the likes of Lyon, Chelsea and VfL Wolfsburg have enabled them to attract the likes of Norwegian Ada Hegerberg (Lyon), Ramona Bachmann (Chelsea) and Pernille Harder (Wolfsburg) when ten years ago there is no question the majority of players of this calibre, would have been heading to the United States.

The U.S was the place to live out your dream as a professional. Kelly Smith (England), Camille Abily (France) and Steffi Jones (Germany), legends of the game who all represented their country over 100 times, made their way over to America in the 2000s with a host of other high profile internationals, because that was the place to earn the best living.

But with that, came the collapse of two professional leagues due to financial problems, and players heading to Europe to continue their club career. This left a cloud over the NWSL when it launched in 2013, but the salary cap and corporate sponsors have meant, in the main part, that the league has been more sustainable.

However, with some of Europe’s biggest clubs now aligning themselves with their women’s teams and investing more resources – Barcelona being a prime example over the last two years – Europe is an attractive proposition, and the opportunities being presented to players, in some areas, outweigh those being offered in the United States.

But with the U.S having the most competitive league, it still leads the way, just, when it comes to club football. France, England and Germany are starting to see a handful of clubs pull away in their domestic competitions due to the resources being ploughed into them by their men’s side, which does make for some one-sided fixtures.

But national teams in Europe will still be in awe of the United States, who just finished 2018 undefeated. They accumulated 18 wins and two draws from their 20 fixtures, with Alex Morgan netting 18 times during the year, making it 25 goals in her last 26 international matches.

The U.S has hit form at the right time, seven months before the start of the World Cup in France, which shows that while Europe is closing the gap, America still leads the way – every member of their squad that finished the year, plays their football in the U.S (Chicago Red Stars’ Dannielle Colaprico is on loan to Sydney FC during the U.S off-season).

It’s fascinating to see how football is evolving in some of the leading nations, and while Europe can boast some of the best facilities, technical football and the Champions League, it is still the United States just about leading the way as we head into a World Cup year.