The US are winners of the last two World Cups – the gap has closed to the best sides in Europe, but has it closed enough?

When Steph Houghton stepped up to take a penalty in England’s semi-final in Lyon four years ago, she was 12 yards away from delivering a hammer blow to the aura of United States World Cup invincibility.

England were nearly the equals of the US that sweltering evening in France’s second city. The game was nip and tuck throughout; it was a ferocious physical tussle, fast and unflinching.

Christen Press had opened the scoring after 10 minutes, but Ellen White equalised just nine minutes later. The US, though, were on top in the first half. They were winning the physical battle, as they so often do, and Alex Morgan restored their lead with just over half an hour played.

Her “drinking a cup of tea” celebration enraged a new audience of football fans in this country, but England came on strongly in the second half. After White had an equaliser ruled out because her toe was offside in the build-up, the penalty gave England a chance to take the semi-final into extra time and prove the European nations were now equals.

Alex Morgan celebrates by pretending to drink a cup of tea

Alex Morgan caused controversy with this celebration against England in the last World Cup Credit: PA/Richard Sellers

But Houghton’s tame kick was saved and the US progressed to their third successive World Cup final. Their celebrations suggested they knew the hardest opponent had been beaten. They cheered and danced in the mixed zone as Houghton tried to talk to the media in the middle of her personal trauma.

It was, at best, insensitive, and Houghton could not continue speaking. The England captain’s anger was clear, but the US players did not care. They are happy to be disliked for winning. For all the smiles and nice words, they are intimidating. It is part of their aura.

The US won the final easily enough a few days later, beating Sarina Wiegman’s Netherlands 2-0 to be crowned world champions for a fourth time. They won in 2015, too, and have not lost a World Cup fixture in 12 matches. They will once again be the team to beat this summer.

Given the American men’s game remains a long way behind the elite nations on the global stage – they were knocked out by Holland in the last 16 at the World Cup in Qatar last year – why are the US so strong in women’s football? They have never finished outside the top three at a World Cup, their dominance spanning more than two decades.

Much of it is down to history, or rather the lack of it. By the time football started to become popular in the US in the Seventies, the sport spread without the baggage of traditional prejudices. There has never been the same stigma attached to women playing soccer in the US that there once was in Europe, South America and beyond, therefore no barriers were placed in front of girls who wanted to participate. As far as the US was concerned, this was a new sport to be enjoyed by all.

‘It’s not seen as women’s sport in the US, it’s just the participation numbers are higher’

It rapidly grew into the most popular female sport in the country in terms of participation and, with places at university on full scholarships available to the best young players, the sport hoovered up many of the best athletes.

“Women’s soccer has been growing for years,” explained Julie Foudy, who won two World Cups and two Olympic gold medals during a glittering playing career. “Going back to when we were Olympic champions, in 1996, in Atlanta and then world champions on home soil in 1999… that was a huge turning point.

“But if you look further back, you can see there has never been the same stigma attached to women playing, going right back to the Seventies and Eighties. That has been a huge factor in the US’s success.

Lindsey Horan, Alex Morgan and Allie Long of the U.S. celebrate winning the Women's World Cup

The United States women’s football team has an enviable record in World Cups Credit: Reuters/Denis Balibouse

“Girls aren’t going to be teased by the boy who lives down the road because they are going to training in their soccer kit with a ball under their arm. It’s just normal.

“I wouldn’t say it is seen as a women’s game in the US, it’s just the participation numbers for women are so much higher,” Foudy added. “With the men, they lose a lot of promising young athletes to other established American sports, but that isn’t as true for our female players.

“I think there are more women playing soccer, and I mean in terms of participation numbers, than the rest of the world combined.

“The fact it is part of the collegiate system, which means girls can play soccer and go on to get a really good education, that means parents see the benefits. That has given us an advantage, too.”

New faces, but confident USA will look to overpower everyone

The women’s team are ranked No 1 in the world heading into this World Cup and have a new generation of exciting young players ­jostling with superstars Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Rose Lavelle and Julie Ertz. Forwards Sophia Smith and Trinity Rodman have made headlines, while teenager Alyssa Thompson is widely tipped to become the world’s best player.

Trinity Rodman #20 of the United States sprints during a USWNT training session at Bay City Park on July 14, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand

Trinity Rodman made her full international debut at just 19 Credit: Getty Images/Brad Smith

The players are big names at home, with the earning potential to match. They are also ferocious campaigners and have fought successfully for equal pay with their male counterparts. If you can describe the growth in women’s football as a revolution, the Americans were at the vanguard of it and were first on the barricades.

The domestic league in the US, the National Women’s Soccer League, has had its ups and downs – and is now being challenged, particularly financially, by the European nations. But it remains a fertile breeding ground for talent to develop and improve.

Tellingly, the US have always tended to look fitter, stronger and faster than their rivals and while that gap has closed, they are once again regarded as the favourites this year Down Under.

They have been wary of the rise of women’s football in Europe for the past few years and lost to England at Wembley last year in a friendly, but the Americans have something else: a supreme confidence that they are able to overpower anyone. They will look to outrun and outfight teams.

They also have an unshakeable mental strength. They are used to winning and they expect to do so. Nobody can match their record of success on the international stage and everything over the past four years has been geared to making sure they are in the best possible shape to defend their crown in 2023. As Morgan once said: “There’s really no secret to success, you have to make your own success.”

The US simply do it better than anyone else. They always have done. Soccer is the top female sport in the richest, most powerful country in the world. It is a daunting and, until this point, dominant combination. The gap has closed to the best sides in Europe, but has it closed enough?